Supreme Court Holds Commercial Landlords Can Delegate Duties to Tenants

In Baldwin Shields v. Ramslee Motors, the Supreme Court of New Jersey recently considered whether the owner of a commercial property has a duty to clear ice and snow from its premises when the property is in the exclusive possession of a tenant. Based on the language of the commercial lease, and the common law, the Court held that the duty to maintain the premises rested solely with the tenant. The tenant, therefore, was exclusively responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries because the tenant retained complete control of the premises where the plaintiff fell.

During the winter of 2014, the plaintiff delivered a letter to Ramslee Motors (“Ramslee”). He slipped and fell on ice in the driveway leading back to the public sidewalk after delivering the letter. The plaintiff filed suit against Ramslee and the owner of the property, 608 Tonnelle Avenue, LLC (“Landlord”).

The lease agreement between Ramslee and the Landlord expressly provided that Ramslee “shall be solely responsible for the maintenance and repair of the land . . . as if [Ramslee] were the de facto owner of the leased premises.” Ramslee’s owner testified that Ramslee was responsible for clearing snow and ice from the property.

Plaintiff settled with Ramslee before trial. The Landlord filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. On appeal, the decision was reversed. The Appellate Division found that the lease was silent as to who was responsible for snow and ice removal. The Appellate Division also held that the Landlord had a non-delegable duty to ensure the driveway abutting the public sidewalk was clear of snow and ice because, in the panel’s opinion, the driveway was not distinct from the public sidewalk.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that commercial landlords could delegate certain duties to maintain property. Specifically, in this case, the Court found that the lease agreement placed maintenance responsibilities on the tenant and concluded that “maintenance” included the removal of snow and ice.

The Court also disagreed that the driveway was not distinct from the public sidewalk. While a landlord has a non-delegable duty to maintain a public sidewalk, the Court determined it would be unfair “to hold the landlord responsible for a ‘condition of disrepair over which it has relinquished access.’”

The Court found no doubt that Ramslee controlled the driveway where the plaintiff fell and that Ramslee’s actions showed an understanding that it was solely responsible for maintaining the property, particularly with respect to snow and ice removal. Thus, the evidence showed that the Landlord did not enjoy the sort of control over the driveway that would give rise to a duty of care.

This is a significant decision because the Court held that a property owner can delegate certain duties to a tenant. The Court also defined “maintenance and repair” in a lease to include snow removal. And, finally, the Court refused to extend a Landlord’s non-delegable duty to remove ice and snow from a public sidewalk abutting a property to a private driveway on the property leading to the sidewalk.

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