NJ Supreme Court finds that landlord can delegate duty to remove snow

Date published

11/02/2020

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In Shields v. Ramslee Motors, No. A-53-18, _N.J. _ (2020), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the owner of a commercial property owes its tenant’s invitee a duty to clear snow and ice from the property’s driveway while the property is in the sole possession and control of the tenant.

In February 2014, plaintiff Balwin Shields fell on ice in the property’s driveway after delivering a letter to the Jersey City car dealership lot operated by defendant Ramslee Motors. A lease between Ramslee and the property owner landlord, co-defendant 608 Tonnelle Avenue, LLC, specified that: “TENANT shall maintain the leased premises and building, structures, fixtures and improvements now or hereafter located thereon or in or on the easements in compliance with all laws and requirements of all governmental authorities applicable thereto and to the use thereof” and “TENANT shall be solely responsible for the maintenance and repair of the land and any structure placed on the premises at any time and from time to time during the lease, as if TENANT were the de facto owner of the leased premises.”

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the landlord, finding the above lease provisions controlled, the duty to remove ice and snow was delegable, and that such a holding did not offend public policy, where Shields could recover from Ramslee. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, analogizing the duty to clear the driveway to the duty to clear sidewalks, as discussed in Vasquez v. Mansol Realty Associates, Inc., 280 N.J. Super. 234, 238 (App. Div. 1995), and holding that the same non-delegable duty should apply.

Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, writing for the Court, reversed, noting that the duty to maintain a driveway, private property, is and has always been a private duty, ultimately holding that, “[i]n 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.” In reaching this determination, the Court first recognized that the Vasquez panel itself suggested the duty it prescribed (relating to sidewalks) would not apply under the circumstances present here, where the landlord vested the tenant with exclusive possession, and the injury occurred squarely on private, not public, property. See id. at 237.

The Court further turned to the seminal Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 439 (1993), which eschewed the traditional, categorical approach to liability based on the status of the plaintiff (e.g, whether the plaintiff was an invitee of the tenant), in favor of four factors to consider in determining whether a duty of care exists: “the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution.”

Weighing these four factors, the Court held: (1) the landlord had no relationship with Shields; (2) it would not be fair to place responsibility for addressing transient conditions such as snow and ice on a commercial landlord that lacked control of the property; (3) it would be impractical to require a landlord to prevent harm from temporary conditions caused by weather on property when it did not have immediate access to information about the current condition of the property; and (4) holding a landlord liable for snow and ice on demised property would not serve any public policy interest where Shields could recover from Ramslee. “In short, [the Court found] the undisputed evidence in the record shows that the landlord did not enjoy the sort of control over the subject driveway that would give rise to a duty of care.”

It is worth noting that the Court’s holding was in spite of certain other lease provisions, through which the landlord retained the right to enter to property without notice to Ramslee for the purpose of making repairs, a fact touched on by Justice Barry Albin in his joint concurring-dissenting opinion. The Majority Opinion addressed those provisions head on, however, holding that the right to enter did not create “an obligation on the part of the Landlord to make such repairs[,]” and, second, reservation of a right to enter is not a covenant to make repairs.

Takeaways:

Shields, together with cases such as Kandrac v. Marrazzo’s Market at Robinsville, 429 N.J. Super. 79 (App. Div. 2012), in which the Appellate Division declined to impose a duty to maintain common areas on a tenant where the commercial lease vested all control and maintenance duties in the landlord, demonstrate the emphasis that must be placed on the lease

• New Jersey’s courts have declined to impose common law duties on landlords and tenants alike, where such duties would directly contradict the respective duties outlined by the parties’ lease agreements

• The duty to remove ice and snow from privately-controlled areas is now definitively “delegable”; other maintenance duties will surely follow form