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Lagonigro v. LaVecchia Group, LLC

A-4515-04T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LEASES; LANDLORD LIABILITY — A property owner is not responsible for accidents that occur by reason of a failure to remove snow where its tenant had exclusive possession of the property and the lease made the tenant, not the property owner, responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk.

A property owner leased its entire property to a restaurant under a written lease agreement. The lease provided that the tenant was responsible for keeping the property free from debris, trash, snow, and ice. The manager of the limited liability company that owned the property also managed the restaurant, though the two companies were separate entities. A restaurant employee was working when he slipped on snow and ice, injuring his back. He sued the property owner and his employer. He also filed a worker’s compensation benefits claim against the restaurant. The property owner moved for summary judgment, claiming that under the terms of the lease, the restaurant was solely responsible for snow and ice removal. The restaurant employee submitted a letter memorandum opposing the motion along with an unsigned statement, supposedly made by the manager and submitted to the insurance company, claiming that property owner was responsible for snow and ice removal. The owner argued that the statement was unsigned and that there was no certification from the insurance company confirming that the property owner delivered any such statement to the insurance company.

The lower court informed the parties that it would set a date for oral arguments and notify them of the date and time. However, the lower court never notified the parties and issued a written order finding that there were material issues of fact in dispute and that summary judgment was inappropriate. The property owner renewed its motion for summary judgment. This time it was granted. The lower court found that the property owner was not responsible for snow removal because the restaurant-tenant had exclusive possession of the property, and the lease made the tenant, not the property owner, responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk. The employee argued for reconsideration, which was denied. The lower court distinguished a case relied upon by the employee, where a court found that an engineer could not escape liability for his negligence based on a hold-harmless provision in the contract when the engineer failed to properly monitor a work site. In this case, there was no negligence on the owner’s part since the lease clearly placed the responsibility for snow removal on the restaurant, not the owner. On appeal, the lower court’s decision was upheld.

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