NJ Supreme Court Rejects Appellate Division's Attempt at Expanding a Commercial Landlord's Non-delegable Duty
In a recently decided case, the NJ Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Division's attempt at expanding a commercial landlord's non-delegable duty (a duty that cannot be assigned). Over the course of decades, our courts have created certain duties for commercial landlord's which cannot be assigned to a tenant. One such duty is that of maintaining a safe sidewalk for the general public to use. However no court has ever found that same duty exists for any private area of the leased property.
In the case at bar, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a portion of icy driveway which was separated by a fence from the sidewalk. The tenant had been assigned all the duties to maintain the property and was even declared the "de facto owner" per the lease terms. Further, the tenant testified that he was solely responsible for clearing snow and ice from the property. Regardless of the weight of evidence, the Appellate Division still found the commercial landlord had liability in not verifying that the driveway was free of the transient condition of snow and ice prior to plaintiff's fall.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed and prevented such holding from overturning years of precedent. In doing so, the Court held (1) a driveway is private property, open to invitees, and not akin to a sidewalk which is used by the general public, (2) this particular lease assigned complete control of the property to the tenant even where the landlord reserved a right to enter to make repairs or in the case of emergency, and (3) even under alternative analysis of Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors the landlord here did not have a duty to protect the plaintiff (especially since plaintiff did recover for his injuries from the tenant).
In sum, a commercial landlord has certain duties which it cannot delegate to its tenant. Maintaining a private portion of the leased premises is not one of those items - yet. (Shields v. Ramslee Motors)
Peter J. Vazquez, Jr.