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Papakostas v. Mitterman

A-6166-06T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

LEASES; LANDOWNERS LIABILITY — A landlord is not liable for a personal injury suffered by an employee of a commercial tenant due to a lack of proper maintenance and repair when the lease unquestionably places responsibility for the maintenance and repair solely upon the tenant. This allocation of responsibility is not altered by a landlord’s knowledge of a condition that the landlord is not obligated to repair or correct.

A tenant’s employee was injured on her employer’s leased premises when she slipped on ice in the parking lot. “She allege[d] that her injuries resulted from the landlord’s negligence in failing to repair a hazardous condition in the parking lot, which was a depression that permitted water to accumulate and freeze.” The lower court dismissed the action on summary judgment and the Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s decision.

The injured worker’s employer had leased the property for five years with an option to renew. It was the only tenant and it occupied the entire premises. The term of the initial lease was extended and the lease was in effect when the woman slipped and fell. The lease was a “‘triple net’ or ‘net-net-net’ lease ... in which [the] commercial tenant [was] responsible for ‘maintaining the premises and paying all utilities, taxes and other charges associated with the property.’” The lease required the tenant to take care of the premises, at its own cost and expense, and to make “all repairs, including structural and roof repairs, ... and [to] maintain the premises in good condition and state of repair.” The tenant was prohibited from encumbering or obstructing the “sidewalks, driveways, yards, entrances, hallways and stairs” and was expressly required to “keep and maintain the same in a clean condition, free from debris, trash, refuse, snow and ice ... .” Even though the lease gave the landlord “the right to enter for the purpose of examining the premises at reasonable hours and making repairs necessary for safety,” the very same paragraph that included that reservation of rights also provided that it could not be “construed to create an obligation on the part of the Landlord to make such inspection or repairs.”

New Jersey law is to the effect “that a landlord is not liable for personal injury suffered by [an] employee of a commercial tenant ‘due to a lack of proper maintenance or repair, when the lease unquestionably places responsibility for [the] maintenance or repair solely upon the tenant.’” In the injured employee’s appeal, she argued that because the same individual had an ownership in both the tenant and landlord, the duty to maintain the premises was placed on that individual in his or her role as landlord. The Court rejected that argument even thought it “recognize[d] that under New Jersey law a [property owner’s] duty to one injured on his or her property ‘turns upon a multiplicity of factors, including a consideration of the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, [the property owner’s] opportunity and ability to exercise reasonable care and the public interest in the proposed solution.’” Basically, it relied on the principal that New Jersey courts have not held that allocation of responsibility under the terms of a triple-net lease could be altered by the landlord’s knowledge of a condition that the landlord is not obligated to repair or correct. It refused to read the injured worker’s complaint as asserting that the owner of her employer “was negligent as a tenant with a status distinct from that of [his company-her employer].”

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