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Housing Complex May Be Held Liable Despite Public Funding

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Ruth M. Leibig was an active and self-sufficient 78-year-old, living in a senior complex operated by Somerville Senior Citizens Housing, Inc., a non-profit organization, in New Jersey. On May 16, 1994, she was found in her bathtub. Her arm had wedged behind the “grab bar” installed in the bathroom to help her get in and out of the tub, and she had been immobilized in that position for three days.

Ms. Leibig did not survive her ordeal. The pressure on an artery in her arm had cut off all circulation, and her arm had become gangrenous. She lapsed into a coma shortly after she was found, and died two days later. The cause of death was listed as septicemia, caused by the gangrene.

The estate brought a lawsuit against Somerville Senior Citizens Housing, alleging that the grab bar had been installed too far away from the wall, and that the housing complex had inadequately supervised Ms. Leibig. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit after deciding that Somerville Senior Citizens Housing was a public entity, and that it should enjoy the same immunity that would protect the state itself from litigation based on negligent building design.

Ms. Leibig’s estate appealed to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. The appellate court reversed the dismissal, and reinstated the estate’s claim. Basically, the court decided that Somerville Senior Citizens Housing was not a “public entity” and therefore should be held to the same standard as other defendants in determining whether it negligently designed or installed the apparently dangerous grab bars.

If Ms. Leibig’s housing development had been designed and built by the State of New Jersey (or a political subdivision), she and her estate would have been unable to recover for her injuries. In fact, the project was completed using government funds and loan guarantees, and was based on plans prepared by the New Jersey agency responsible for senior citizen housing projects.

Although Somerville Senior Citizens Housing is a non-profit organization, and although government funds and control were involved in the construction of the project, the appellate court decided that there was insufficient evidence available to show that the builder was really a government agency. That decision was partly based on the lack of information (and conflicting information) provided to the court. In addition the court noted that immunity would only be available to a state agency if it could show that the building was built in accordance with the approved plans; in fact, the grab bars in this case were further from the wall than indicated in the original plans. Estate of Leibig v. Somerville Senior Citizens Housing, Inc., Nov. 24, 1999.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.