Superior Court of New Jersey Rules that Property Owners’ Traditional Non-Delegable Duty to Maintain its Premises is Not Absolute
(NEWARK, NJ) – The Superior Court of New Jersey has dismissed a premises liability claim brought by a plaintiff against a property owner after a slip and fall accident, ruling that a property owner’s non-delegable duty to maintain its premises is not absolute.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a property owner, seeking to recover damages stemming from a slip and fall incident on ice. The plaintiff was employed on the date of the incident by the sole tenant at the property, and was thus barred from recovery against the tenant pursuant to the exclusivity provision of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. Pursuant to the terms of the lease between the property owner and the commercial tenant, the property owner had zero responsibilities with regard to any maintenance or upkeep of the premises, explicitly including snow and ice removal services. Furthermore, the lease in question was a “triple net” lease in which a commercial tenant is responsible for maintaining the premises and for paying all utilities, taxes and other charges associated with the property.
Erosion of Landowner’s Non-Delegable Duty to Maintain Property Free from Hazard
New Jersey property law supports the general proposition that a landowner has a non-delegable duty to maintain its property free from hazard or danger. However, a series of Appellate Division cases erodes that non-delegable duty in narrow circumstances, making clear that this duty is not absolute.
In Vasquez v. Mansol Realty Associates, Inc., 280 N.J. Super 234 (App.Div. 1995), an employee of a tenant brought suit against the property owner of a commercial premises as a result of a slip and fall on snow and ice on a public sidewalk abutting the premises. The owner of the property, through a written lease with the tenant, surrendered exclusive possession to the tenant. Because the plaintiff’s fall occurred on a public sidewalk, the Appellate Court held that the property owner still maintained a non-delegable duty in such situations. The Court explicitly juxtaposed such a situation with one where the tenant had assumed exclusive possession in the lease and no longer had the right of entry into the premises to perform maintenance or make repairs.
In McBride v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 295 N.J. Super 521 (App.Div. 1996), the Court extended the Vasquez holding to include situations where the lease places sole responsibility for maintenance or repair on the tenant, but the property owner reserves the right of entry into the premises. Interpreting the lease, the Court found that the onus for repairs and maintenance fell upon the tenant, and thus, summary judgment was appropriate for the property owner/landlord defendant.
In Geringer v. Hartz Mountain Development Corp., 388 N.J. Super 392 (App.Div. 2006), the Court reaffirmed the McBride holding that the lease unambiguously placed upon the tenant exclusive responsibility for maintenance and repair of the area where the plaintiff fell.
In analyzing these cases, the Court found that the common thread was the lease between landlord and tenant unambiguously placing upon the tenant exclusive responsibility for maintenance and repair. In the instant case, the terms of the lease were not in doubt. Per the terms of the lease, the tenant was responsible for all maintenance of the property including snow and ice removal.
The lease stated, in relevant part, “[t]hat the Tenant shall take good care of the premises and shall, at Tenant’s own cost and expense, make all repairs…and maintain the entire premises, without limitation, including, but not limited to, …the driveway and parking areas, all at Tenant’s own cost and expense, during the terms of the Lease.”
The Lease further stated:
[T]he Landlord shall not be responsible for…injury to persons, occurring in or about the demised premises, by reason of any existing or future condition, defect, matter or thing in said demised premises or the property of which the premises are a part, or for the acts, omissions or negligence of other persons or Tenants in and about the said property…[t]he Tenant agrees to indemnify and save the Landlord harmless from all claims and liability for losses of or damage to the property, or injuries to and understood by and between the parties to this agreement, that the Landlord shall not be liable for any damage or injury to person or property caused by or resulting from …water, rain, ice or snow…or from any damaged or injury resulting or arising from any other cause or happening whatsoever, unless caused by gross negligence of Landlord or its agents.
Relying on the line of cases above, the Court ruled that in the absence of any contractual duty to repair or maintain the premises and specifically to perform any snow or ice removal services, the landlord could not be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries as a matter of law. As such, the Court ruled in favor of the property owner defendant, dismissing all plaintiff’s claims against it. This matter was appealed by the plaintiff and is currently before the New Jersey Court of Appeals.