When a Neighbor Dies Unattended, How Should the Building Handle It?

Q: Six months ago, while I was out of town, there were two unattended deaths in my 60-unit co-op building in Brooklyn. The bodies were eventually discovered and removed. My apartment is above the unit where this occurred, and I returned to flies and a smelly apartment. Two months later, the co-op board got a court order allowing it to break the NYPD seal and remove the apartment’s contents. But the smell remains, and no work is planned. The odor is weaker now, but persistent, especially when the heat comes on. It’s too cold to keep the windows open. I’m running air purifiers, but have had to abandon one room and all the closets. My household insurance won’t help, because there is no physical damage. What recourse do I have?

A: Your situation is unfortunate, and is also legally complex. In typical cases where a neighbor causes unwanted odors, you would approach the co-op board and make a claim against the neighbor, depending upon the terms in your co-op’s governing documents.

In this case, the co-op board could make the argument that your neighbor’s estate is the responsible party, if the deceased tenants were shareholders, or the sponsor, if they were renters.

But the board has a duty to all shareholders to act in their best interests, and it needs to know that the odor persists and that parts of your apartment are uninhabitable. If your neighbors are also impacted, approach the board together. Tell them that the apartment below needs to be cleaned by a company that specializes in decomposition odor removal and disinfection, said Debra J. Guzov, a real estate lawyer in Manhattan.

“Certainly the co-op board has a duty to send a professional company in there to properly disinfect,” Ms. Guzov said. “It’s not the super mopping the floor. It really needs a particular type of disinfection.”

In situations where people have died and an estate is in court, gaining access to the apartment for cleaning can be difficult. But your co-op board has already done this, which makes permission to re-enter the apartment for cleaning more likely. If the board is not responsive, you can make a complaint through 311 to the Health Department.

You can also start a court action to compel the co-op board to clean, but that would be a last resort. “You have a really good claim under the warranty of habitability, because you have the right to live free of smells,” said Adam Leitman Bailey, a real estate lawyer in Manhattan. “That is your right under New York law.”

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