On January 23, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey issued its opinion in Shields v. Ramslee Motors and 608 Tonnelle Avenues, LLC, holding that an owner of a commercial property does not owe its tenant’s invitees a duty to remove snow and ice from a driveway on that property when the commercial tenant maintained exclusive possession and control of the property.
In Shields, the plaintiff, a commercial courier, delivered a letter to Ramslee Motors (the “Tenant”), which was located on property owned by a commercial landlord, 608 Tonnelle Avenue, LLC (the “Landlord”). As he left, the plaintiff walked on a driveway leading to a public sidewalk. He fell on snow and ice in the driveway, and sued the Landlord and the Tenant for his injuries.
The lease between the Landlord and the Tenant provided that the Tenant would be solely responsible for maintaining the premises. The Tenant’s owner testified that he was responsible for clearing ice and snow, and maintained equipment to so do. However, the Landlord retained the right to enter the premises on one day’s notice and at any time in the event of an emergency.
The Law Division granted summary judgment to the Landlord based on the terms of the lease and on public policy. The Appellate Division reversed for two reasons. First, it ruled that the lease was silent regarding snow and ice removal. Second, it ruled that the Landlord had a non-delegable duty to remove snow and ice from a driveway abutting a public sidewalk.
The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the judgment of the Law Division. It found that the lease delegated the duty of snow and ice removal to the Tenant. It rejected the argument that a landlord should be responsible for an injury that occurs on leased premises simply because the landlord retained the right to enter those premises to make repairs. The Court found no public-policy reason to expand a commercial landowner’s duty to maintain public sidewalks free of snow and ice to private property, such as the driveway where the plaintiff fell. It reached that conclusion because, first, the Landlord had no relationship with the plaintiff. Second, the Landlord had no control over the property for transient hazards such as snow and ice. Third, requiring the Landlord to monitor the property for transient hazards when the Landlord did not maintain a presence on the property would be impractical. Last, the plaintiff could recover from the Tenant.
This decision may provide a basis for both landlords and tenants to move for dismissal where they have no relationship with the plaintiff, no control over the property for a transient hazard, and no opportunity to eliminate that hazard, and the claimant has an independent source of recovery. If you have any questions about this case, or about premises liability in general, please do not hesitate to call Jim Lisovicz or Tim Smith.