Winter may be close to its conclusion, however, it can still be a constant battle to keep snow and ice from sidewalks and walkways. For commercial landlords, the job is particularly important, given that failing to take steps to address the accumulation of snow and ice, such as shoveling, putting down salt, or posting signs, could lead to liability.

In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey clarified the extent of a commercial landlord’s duty to clear snow and ice. The court held in Shields v. Ramslee Motors that the landlord was not responsible for property of which the tenant had sole possession and control under the terms of the lease agreement.

Flip and Fall Lawsuit

In Shields v. Ramslee Motors, the Plaintiff, an individual, slipped on ice and fell, suffering injuries, on the driveway of a used car dealership in Jersey City which Defendant (landlord) owned and a commercial tenant (Ramslee Motors) rented. The lease agreement between the Defendant and Ramslee Motors stated that Ramslee Motors was responsible for maintaining the property as if it were the “de facto owner.”

The lease provisions also reserved the right of the landlord to enter the premises to make inspections and repairs, as well as to enter during emergency situations.

The trial court found that the landlord was not responsible for removing snow and ice from the property and granted summary judgment in favor of the landlord. The Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate Division 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.

New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed, holding that the owner of a commercial property does not owe 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. “The 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 as the de-facto owner,” Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote. “Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.”

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that the lease was clear as to which party is responsible for the maintenance of the premises. It also found that the provision through which the landlord retained the right to enter the property without notice for the purpose of making repairs did not change that allocation of responsibility.

After concluding that the lease delegated the responsibility to clear ice and snow to the tenant, the court turned to whether or not the duty could be delegated. In its analysis, the court addressed the distinction between removing ice and snow from a sidewalk and a privately-owned driveway. While the court acknowledged that the duty to clear sidewalks was declared a non-delegable duty in Vasquez v. Mansol Realty Associates, Inc., 280 N.J. Super. 234, 238 (App. Div. 1995), it disagreed with the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the driveway at issue was not distinct from the sidewalk.

“The duty to maintain the driveway was never the government’s -- it was always a private duty, with the potential of private recovery; the logic that led to the imposition of the duty vis-à-vis sidewalks does not apply to private property,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote. “Nor do the physical characteristics of the property support the appellate court’s conclusion: the driveway is separated from the sidewalk by a gate and cannot therefore be readily accessed by passers-by when not expressly opened by Ramslee Motors.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court next considered the issue of control, noting that a landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care to guard against foreseeable dangers arising from the use of those portions of the rental property over which the landlord retains control. “Here, there is no doubt that Ramslee Motors, not the landlord, controlled the driveway where plaintiff fell based both on relevant provisions in the lease and on the physical characteristics of the property,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote.

Finally, the court applied the four factors set forth in Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426 (1993) for 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. It concluded that the factors also supported its conclusion that the landlord had no duty to clear the driveway of snow and ice.

The court first noted that the landlord had no relationship with the plaintiff. Second, the court found that it would not be fair to place responsibility for the removal of snow and ice, which are transient conditions, on a commercial landlord who lacks control over the property. Third, the court concluded it would be impractical to require the landlord to prevent the harm accompanying temporarily slippery conditions caused by weather on the property when it does not have access to information about the condition of the property. Finally, the court determined that holding a landlord liable for snow and ice on demised property would not serve any public policy interest because the entity with control over the property (Ramslee Motors) should be held liable.

“In 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,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote.

Key Takeaway for Commercial Landlords and Tenants

As the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision makes clear, courts will generally look to the terms of a commercial lease when determining the duties of commercial tenants and landlords. Accordingly, it is important that the parties fully understand their obligations, and state them in the lease. It should also be noted that while commercial property owners have a non-delegable duty to keep sidewalks abutting the property safe for members of the public, the same rule does not necessarily apply to private driveways and other areas.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Stephanie Edelstein, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-806-3364.