Can a commercial landlord be held responsible for injuries on commercial property when the commercial lease expressly requires the commercial tenant to perform certain types of maintenance on the property? A recent New Jersey Supreme Court case says that a commercial property owner is not responsible if someone slips and falls on that commercial property due to snow and ice, as long as the lease makes clear that the commercial tenant has control of the property. In other words, a commercial landlord does not owe a duty of care to an invitee under these circumstances. The case, Shields v. Ramslee Motors (2020), will be important for considering a commercial landlord’s liability in future slip and fall cases in the state. Let us tell you more about the recent case.

Getting the Facts of the Case: Shields v. Ramslee Motors

In the present New Jersey case, the plaintiff, Baldwin Shields, was working as a FedEx delivery driver and attempted to deliver a letter to Ramslee Motors, a used car dealership in Jersey City. Ramslee Motors had a commercial lease for the property, and thus was a commercial tenant. Shields slipped on ice on the Ramslee Motors driveway and fell. Shields filed a claim against Ramslee Motors and the owner of the commercial property.

The specific language of the commercial lease is important in this case, so we want to provide some specific details about it. According to the terms of the commercial lease, Ramslee Motors was responsible for maintaining the property “as if it were the de facto owner,” according to the case. There was no specific language in the lease that said Ramslee Motors had a duty to remove snow and ice from the driveway. Despite the fact that the language about Ramslee Motors being responsible for maintaining the property as a “de facto owner,” Shields argued that the commercial landlord still had a duty to maintain the property since there was no specific language about who was responsible for removing that snow and ice.

Lower Court Holdings and the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Reasoning

The trial court focused on the language of “de facto owner” in the commercial lease, and found that, even though there was no specific language that required Ramslee Motors to remove snow and ice from the property, the commercial landlord did not have that responsibility—Ramslee Motors did. Accordingly, the trial court granted the commercial landlord’s motion for summary judgment. Shields appealed.

The Appellate Division agreed with Shields and reversed the trial court. According to the case, “it found that the lease was silent as to who was responsible for snow and ice removal from the driveway,” and regardless, “the landlord owed the same non-delegable duty to maintain the driveway that it owed with respect to the sidewalks abutting the leased property.

The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division and found for the commercial landlord. Specifically, it reasoned that the lease language requiring Ramslee Motors to maintain the property as a “de facto owner” meant that Ramslee “retained complete control over the premises were plaintiff fell and was exclusively responsible for plaintiff’s injuries.” The Court clarified that the commercial landlord relinquished control in this particular situation. In a concurring opinion, Justice Albin agreed with the outcome in this case but did not go so far as to say that a landlord does not have a duty to make repairs or remedy a dangerous condition on commercial property when the landlord knows about a hazard or has the ability to remedy a hazard.

If you have questions about how this decision may impact your case, please contact Joseph Leone at jleone@hoaglandlongo.com or Robert Hagans at rhagans@hoaglandlongo.com or call (732) 545-4717 for more information.