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Ruling By New Jersey Supreme Court Changes Law On Snow And Ice Removal For Commercial Properties

New Jersey Supreme Court rules that a commercial tenant has sole responsibility for snow and ice removal in a slip and fall injury case where the tenant assumed responsibility for maintenance of the property, overcoming the previously established law that imposed a non-delegable duty for snow and ice removal on commercial landlords.

On February 6th, 2014, Shields, a driver for Federal Express, slipped and fell on ice after he delivered a letter to a commercial property in Jersey City. The car dealership lot premises was operated by Ramslee Motors under a lease from the commercial landlord, which called for the tenant to maintain the property, while reserving the right of the landlord to enter the premises to make inspections and repairs and during emergencies. The issue before the Court was whether the duty to remove the snow and ice, under these circumstances, fell on the commercial landlord or the commercial tenant. 

The Trial Court granted summary judgment in favor of the landlord holding that the duty belonged to the tenant as it was delegable under the lease. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the landlord indeed had a non-delegable duty to maintain the property, including the sidewalk and the driveway. The Appellate Division relied on the well-established principle first stated in Vasquez v. Mansol Realty Associates, which ruled that the landlord had a non-delegable duty to clear the sidewalk. Finding that the sidewalk was not distinct from the driveway, the Appellate Division declared the duty to remove the snow and ice from the driveway was non-delegable and thus fell on the landlord. 

The Supreme Court of New Jersey, however, disagreed with the Appellate Division. Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote that the lease called for the tenant to bear responsibility for maintenance of the property while the landlord retained the right to enter without notice in order to make repairs. The Court found that this right retained by the landlord did not change the responsibility on the tenant to maintain the property, emphasizing that the sidewalk was different from a driveway which is deemed private property. Justice Fernandez-Vina also addressed the Hopkins factors, (the relationship of the parties, the nature of the present risk, the ability and opportunity to exercise care, and the public interest) in determining control of the property. Fernandez-Vina reasoned that the injured plaintiff had no relationship with the landlord and it would be unfair to require the landlord to remove the transient snow or ice as practically speaking the landlord could not know about it. It would further be impractical to require the landlord to prevent harm from a temporary condition caused by bad weather. And finally, there was no public interest best served in holding the landlord responsible because the plaintiff could still recover from Ramslee Motors. 

Therefore, the Supreme Court of New Jersey determined that the commercial tenant was fully responsible for removing snow and ice from the dealership lot. Although Justice Barry Albin concurred and dissented in part arguing that the landlord, who retained sufficient control, should not be able to fully extinguish its common law duty to exercise reasonable care in preventing harm caused by foreseeable danger; he conceded that the transient nature of snow and ice conditions would make it impractical for the landlord to know or oversee the condition’s removal. The Court’s ruling is best summarized by Justice Fernandez-Vina writing that “In fairness, the entity with control over the property is the entity that should be held responsible. We decline to hold the landlord responsible for property over which it had relinquished control.”