Valentin v. Trygg

A-5936-97T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: February 25, 1999

LANDLORD-TENANT; LANDLORD’S LIABILITY—Even if a current tenant has exclusive possession of a building, a landlord may still be liable for injuries caused by a condition that existed or was created during a prior period when the landlord itself occupied the building.

A tenant’s employee was injured in the parking lot of a building while working. He sued the property owner, alleging negligent maintenance of the parking lot. The employee had slipped on an accumulation of wet silt which resulted from the existence of a shallow swale, a condition of long standing. In fact, the swale and the silt condition existed throughout the entire time that the property owner had, itself, been the exclusive occupant of the property and continued after the property had been leased to the injured party’s employer. Under the terms of the lease, the landlord reserved a small portion of a mezzanine for storage of office files and allowed a friend to occupy another small portion of the property without payment of rent. The major tenant, however, was exclusively responsible for maintenance of the interior and exterior of the property.

The question before the Court was whether the landlord, after leasing the property, had any continuing legal liability for the defective condition it either caused or maintained prior to the lease. In McBride v. Port Auth., 295 N.J. Super. 521 (App. Div. 1996), the Court held that when a commercial tenant is in exclusive possession under the terms of a lease, its landlord has no liability for the tenant’s negligent maintenance of the property. Here, however, the Court did not believe that the rational of McBride applied to the facts as propounded by the injured party in its opposition to a motion for summary judgment. Although the Court recognized that in McBride it was only the tenant that had the duty of reasonable care in view of the tenant’s exclusive possession of the premises and its obligation of repair and maintenance, one significant fact in McBride, was not present in the instant case. The tenant in McBride had been in exclusive possession for thirty-eight years at the time the accident occurred so that there was no indication that the landlord had had any responsibility for the creation or maintenance of the defective condition. Here, however, because the landlord had had exclusive occupancy prior to the lease and had been aware of the defect prior to the lease, the Court believed that McBride was clearly inapplicable. Rather, the governing principle is that an owner of land is responsible at least for its own use thereof and dangerous conditions developing during its occupancy, even if they cause injury only after the demise to another. The Court further noted that the major tenant’s lease was not exclusive. The landlord retained a portion of the premises and made another portion available to others. In such circumstances, the Court could not say, despite the lease’s imposition of the repair obligation on the injured party’s employer, that the landlord had sufficiently relinquished control to invoke the McBride rule.