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Airbnb renter whose grease fire set off sprinklers in Vancouver highrise can't be sued by insurer, court rules

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An Edmonton man who accidentally started a grease fire while staying in an Airbnb in a downtown Vancouver condo, setting off the building's sprinklers, cannot be sued for damages by the strata corporation's insurer.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Simon R. Coval reached that conclusion in a decision issued Monday

The case arose from John Schappert's April 2019 stay in unit 1406 of the Carlyle building – a 21-storey, 147-unit condo tower constructed at 1060 Alberni St. in the late 1980s.

While staying in the unit – which BC Assessment lists as having one bedroom, one bathroom, 651 square feet of living space and an assessed value of $629,000 as of July 1, 2022 – Schappert and his partner caused a grease fire while cooking a meal. 

The incident triggered the building's fire suppression system, causing water damage to strata-owned common property and leading Airbnb to charge Schappert $499 as a security deposit.

The strata corporation's insurance paid for the cost of repairs to the common property. Then, on its insurer's behalf, the strata sued Schappert to recoup those costs, alleging Schappert's negligence caused the fire.

RENTER WAS COVERED AS 'OCCUPANT'

Normally, disputes involving strata corporations are handled by B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal, which receives written submissions and renders decisions digitally, and generally moves faster than the regular courts.

In this case, both the plaintiff and the defendant asked the B.C. Supreme Court to take on the matter, and Coval obliged, finding that the issues raised were "legally complex" and "of sufficient importance" to merit an in-person hearing.

Schappert raised two arguments for why the strata corporation and its insurer shouldn't be able to pursue their costs from him, according to the decision.

His first defence was that he should be counted as one of the people covered under the strata's insurance policy, and therefore subject to the common law "no subrogation rule," which prohibits insurers from pursuing the people they insure for cost recovery.

"The most basic policy reason to bar subrogation against one of the insured is that the insurer has contracted to take onto itself the very risk, taking it from the very insured," Coval's decision reads, quoting from another ruling that explained the no subrogation rule.

Schappert argued that he should qualify as one of the insured, while the strata corporation argued that he should not.

Coval sided with Schappert, noting that the strata's insurance policy includes three categories of "named insureds": the corporation itself, the owners and tenants of strata lots, and "the persons who normally occupy the strata lots."

According to the decision, the owners of the Carlyle introduced a bylaw in 2018 allowing for 10 of the units in the building to be used as "full-time short-term rentals" – meaning they must be rented out at least once every 60 days – and requiring owners to apply for the right to be among the 10.

Unit 1406 was one of the building's full-time short-term rental units in April 2019, and it was "a normal and common occurrence for there to be short-term renters occupying the 10 short-term full-time rental units" at that time, the decision indicates.

It concludes that because short-term renters were authorized to occupy designated units – such as 1406 – and "commonly did so," Schappert and other short-term renters qualified as "the persons who normally occupy the strata lots," and are therefore insured under the strata's policy.

While the insurer argued it should be able to pursue costs from Schappert even if he was found to be among the insured, Coval disagreed, finding that the policy did not contain any clear language that would allow subrogated claims in Schappert's situation.

RENTER CAN'T CLAIM LIABILITY WAIVER

Coval's decision also addressed Schappert's second defence in the case, which was that he should benefit from a clause in the strata corporation's bylaws that waives liability for damages covered by the corporation's insurance.

On this matter, the judge sided with the strata, finding that – though he was insured as an occupant and the subrogation claim was barred – Schappert could not take advantage of rights extended only to owners under the strata's bylaws.

"On the clear wording of the clause, the waiver applies only to 'owners,'" Coval's decision reads.

It also notes that Schappert signed a "Form K" document before his stay at the Carlyle that obliged him to comply with strata bylaws and rules, "without suggesting he can take the benefit of any of the rights therein."

"(The form) also makes him responsible for any costs incurred by the strata for remedying a contravention of the bylaws, which would include his contravention of the s. 4.2 obligation not to cause damage to the common property," the decision reads.

Schappert's obligation to pay for the cost of damages he caused to common property did not end up coming into play in this court case, because the strata did not claim any expenses that were not covered by insurance, and the court found that the insurer was barred from pursuing a subrogated claim against him for the expenses it paid.

Thus, Coval dismissed the strata's claim against Schappert and awarded him court costs, subject to the parties making a different arrangement or submitting further documentation on the matter. 

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