In New Jersey, landowners generally have a non-delegable duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe manner for those who come onto their premises. That often leads to personal injury claims where the landowner and tenant are both named, even where the lease agreement between a landowner and tenant provides that the tenant is solely responsible for maintenance and repair of the land and premises. In Baldwin Shields v. Ramslee Motors, (A-53-18) (081969), decided January 23, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to impose a duty upon a landowner who had relinquished control to its tenant for the maintenance and repair of the land and any structure on the premises.
In Shields, the plaintiff delivered an envelope to Ramslee Motors, a used car dealership. While doing so, Mr. Shields slipped and fell on snow and ice on the driveway leading back to the sidewalk. Ramslee Motors used the driveway to park cars for sale.
The Lease Agreement between Ramslee Motors and the landowner provided that Ramslee Motors was responsible for maintaining the property as if it were the “de facto owner”. The trial court had granted summary judgment to the land owner but the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the Lease was silent regarding responsibility for snow and ice removal from the driveway and that the landowner had a non-delegable duty.
Relying on the definitions of “maintain” and “maintenance”, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that snow and ice removal clearly fell within these definitions and that the parties agreed to place responsibility for maintenance of the premises on Ramslee Motors. The Court noted that the argument that the landowner’s right to enter the property without notice for the purpose of making repairs is not the same as a covenant to make repairs, relying on a long line of New Jersey cases.
The New Jersey Supreme Court then considered the Appellate Division’s determination that a private driveway is sufficiently analogous to a public sidewalk to extend the non-delegable duty to clear sidewalks to the driveway. It concluded that the landowner vested the tenant with exclusive possession and that it would be “unfair” to hold the landowner responsible.
The Court went on to examine whether the question of control should result in a different outcome. It found that the undisputed evidence demonstrated that the landowner did not “enjoy the sort of control over the subject driveway that would give rise to a duty of care”. Op. at p. 15. In short, the entity with control over the property is the entity that should be held responsible. Op. at p.18
Critical to the Court’s decision was the language in the Lease Agreement, was that Ramslee Motors understood that it was responsible for clearing snow and ice at the property, was that Ramslee Motors had cleared snow and ice from the property the day before the incident and was that Plaintiff would not be deprived of a remedy since he could pursue a claim against Ramslee Motors.