Owners of rental properties do not owe a general duty to remove snow and ice from the property and thus may not be liable for injuries sustained by plaintiffs who slip and fall as a result. Rather, according to a recent case by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the landlord-tenant contract must be examined to see if that duty was delegated to the tenant.
In that case, the defendant (landlord) owned a property which it leased to Ramslee Motors (Ramslee), a used car dealership. The contract between the two stated that the tenant “shall maintain the leased premises and building, structures, fixtures and improvements now or hereafter located thereon . . . “ and that the tenant “shall be solely responsible for the maintenance and repair of the land . . . as if the tenant were the de-facto owner of the leased premises.” The contract also permitted the landlord to reenter the premises to inspect it and/or make repairs. The plaintiff, Baldwin Shields (Baldwin) was delivering a letter to Ramslee and slipped on ice while walking down the driveway back to his vehicle. The driveway as adjacent to the sidewalk and was separated by a fence. Baldwin sustained injuries as a result of the fall.
Baldwin brought suit against both Ramslee, the tenant of the property, as well as the landlord, the owner of the property. While Baldwin settled with Ramslee, the landlord filed a motion for summary judgment against Baldwin’s claim, which the trial court granted. Invoking the common law rule that landlords cannot delegate the duty to care for sidewalks abutting property, the appellate court reversed. The landlord appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, the landlord argued that the language of the contract gave clear responsibility to the tenant to maintain the premises––which includes removing snow and ice when necessary. The landlord also argued that the sidewalk rule, invoked by the appellate division, should not be extended to driveways on private properties. Baldwin argued in response that the contract language was too vague to delegate removal and snow and ice to the tenant and that regardless driveways should be treated the same way as sidewalks because they served similar functions.
The Court ultimately agreed with the landlord. First, the Court held that the terms of the contract, which stated that the tenant “shall maintain the leased premises,” included the duty to remove snow and ice. The Court reasoned that the word “maintain,” at least for legal purposes, usually includes a degree of upkeep and that snow removal falls within that upkeep. Additionally, the Court held that the fact that the landlord retained a right to enter the property to inspect it or make general repairs did not affect that delegation, as the lease itself stated that the right to reenter and make repairs did not create an obligation to do so.
The Court also agreed with the landlord that the rule preventing commercial landlords from delegating the duty to care for sidewalks should not be extended to driveways. The Court explained, originally, the government was liable for sidewalk conditions. However, New Jersey eventually extended sidewalk liability to landlords in order to shift that burden to landlords from the government––not from tenants. In addition, this case was further distinguishable from the sidewalk rule because the driveway was not accessible to the public unless Ramslee made it so by opening the gate which separated the driveway from the sidewalk. Lastly, the Court held that it did not make sense to have the landlord assume the duty of caring for the driveway because it was Ramslee that had more control over the driveway. In addition to assuming that responsibility via the lease, Ramslee enjoyed control over the driveway that the landlord did not. This control was reflected in Ramslee’s actions, such as previously clearing the driveway of snow and ice.
As such, the Court declined to hold the landlord responsible for the duty of removing snow and ice and thus reinstated the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the landlord.
If you have questions about the responsibility of maintaining rental properties, or have any other legal questions, feel free to contact Ward, Shindle & Hall.