The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of Clark & Fox’s client, 608 Tonnelle Avenue, LLC, a landlord sued by one of its tenant’s invitees who was injured in a slip and fall. The case, captioned Baldwin Shields v. Ramslee Motors, arose when Plaintiff slipped on snow and ice in the driveway of a used car dealership operated by the tenant. Plaintiff sued the tenant, Ramslee Motors, as well as the landlord, 608 Tonnelle Avenue, LLC.
Clark & Fox moved for summary judgment on behalf of the landlord, arguing that the lease language gave Ramslee Motors sole responsibility for property maintenance. The trial court granted summary judgment, but Plaintiff appealed and the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed, holding that the landlord had a non-delegable duty to ensure the driveway was clear of snow and ice.
The case was taken up by the New Jersey Supreme Court, where Clark & Fox attorneys successfully argued that the Defendant-landlord was not responsible for maintaining its property because it relinquished control to its tenant, Ramslee Motors. Writing for a seven-justice majority, Justice Fernandez-Vina recognized that the plain terms of the lease absolved the landlord of a duty to remove snow and ice and, more broadly, held that a lease term reserving the right to enter is not a covenant to make repairs. Justice Albin concurred in the judgment and dissented in part.
The majority opinion indicated that the Appellate Division overextended its application of Vasquez v. Mansol Realty Associates, a 1995 appellate decision declaring the duty to clear sidewalks to be non-delegable. Here, 608 Tonnelle Avenue did not retain control over the leased property sufficient enough to give rise to a duty of care. The Court reinstated summary judgment, finding for 608 Tonnelle Avenue under both a traditional liability analysis and under the factors created in Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, a New Jersey case that calls on courts to consider the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant when determining the existence of a duty of care.
By placing the duty to maintain the leased property solely on the tenant, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a consequential decision that now governs premises liability matters going forward in New Jersey.
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