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Owner of Commercial Property Does Not Owe Its Tenant’s Invitee Duty to Clear Snow and Ice from Property’s Driveway While Property in Sole Possession and Control of Tenant

By on January 31, 2020 in Negligence with 0 Comments

In the published New Jersey Supreme Court decision of Shields v. Ramslee Motors, 2020 N.J. LEXIS 17 (2020), the Court was asked to decide whether the owner of a commercial property owed to its tenant’s invitee a duty to clear snow and ice from the property’s driveway while the property was in the sole possession and control of the tenant. The plaintiff, Baldwin Shields, a Federal Express driver, was delivering a letter at 608 Tonnelle Avenue, Jersey City, when he slipped on ice and fell on the driveway leading back to the sidewalk. At that time, this property was occupied by a commercial tenant, Ramslee Motors, a used car dealership. According to the lease between the landlord and Ramslee Motors, Ramslee Motors was responsible for maintaining the property as if it were the “de facto owner.”

The trial court found that the defendant landlord/property owner was not responsible for removing snow and ice from the property and dismissed out the landlord/property owner by summary judgment. However, the Appellate Division disagree with that decision. It found that the lease was silent as to who was responsible for snow and ice removal from the driveway and “determined that, in any case, the landlord owed the same non-delegable duty to maintain the driveway that it owed with respect to the sidewalks abutting the leased property.”

However, the Supreme Court disagreed with this determination, finding that “[t]he lease agreement between Ramslee Motors and the landlord directly addressed the issue of responsibility for maintenance of the property, which includes removal of snow and ice.” The Court found that the duty rested solely with Ramslee Motors, whether based on the lease or common law. The Supreme Court noted that “Ramslee Motors retained complete control over the premises where plaintiff fell and was exclusively responsible for plaintiff’s injuries.”

Although the lease permitted the landlord the right to enter the property to make repairs, that did not obligate the landlord to make such repairs. The Court pointed out that the right to enter was different than a covenant to repair. Hence, it found no ambiguity in the lease regarding the responsibility for snow and ice removal. That obligation fell upon the tenant based upon the lease.

It next considered whether the duty to clear ice and snow was one that could be delegated. The Supreme Court found that the non-delegable duty to maintain an abutting public sidewalk did not apply to a private driveway. The Court pointed out that this driveway was separated from the sidewalk by a gate and cannot be readily accessed by passers-by when not expressly opened by Ramslee Motors. Hence, the Supreme Court found that the non-delegable duty of a commercial property owner to remove snow and ice from a public sidewalk did not apply to this situation.

The Court also examined the question of control of the driveway. There was no doubt that Ramslee Motors, not the landlord, controlled the driveway. Not only did the lease make Ramslee Motors responsible for the driveway, but it fulfilled this responsibility by handling the snow and ice removal, including the night before this accident. Ramslee Motors used this driveway as part of its business. There was no evidence that the landlord enjoyed the sort of control over this driveway that would give rise to a duty of care.

The Supreme Court also analyzed this case under the nontraditional test expounded under Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426 (1993) in considering whether a duty of care should be imposed upon the landlord/property owner to remove snow/ice from the driveway. After reviewing the four factors in Hopkins (“relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity to exercise due care, and the public interest in the proposed solution”), it did not alter the Court’s conclusion that “fairness precludes the landlord’s liability for plaintiff’s injuries.” The Supreme Court found that “the entity with control over the property is the entity that should be held responsible.”             

Hence, the Court refused to hold the landlord responsible for a property over which it had relinquished control. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment and reinstated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment as to the defendant landlord/property owner.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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