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Wilson v. The Wild Crow

A-6061-98T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; LIABILITY—A design defect in a stairway is not a structural defect that would make a landlord liable for an injury caused by that defect by reason of the landlord’s lease obligation to correct structural defects.

A retail customer tripped and fell on a two-step riser separating the front room of a store from its back room. She assertedly did not see the stairway before she fell because the doorway was obscured by a curtain of hanging beads placed there by the tenant. The stairwell was not marked and there may not have been any warning signs on the floor regarding the stairway. There was no banister along the two-step riser. Further, there was testimony that the riser heights were irregular and that such a condition constituted a hazard. The landlord had not changed, modified or reconstructed the stairway since he had purchased the building. Pursuant to the lease, the landlord was responsible for remedying dangerous or defective structural conditions. The tenant, however, was required to comply with all laws and to promptly notify the landlord when there were conditions needing repair. The lower court found the tenant to be solely at fault for the accident and absolved the landlord of any responsibility. On appeal, the tenant, seeking indemnification from its landlord, argued that the problems with the stairway constituted structural conditions and that the landlord had failed to satisfy its responsibility to remedy those structural defects. The landlord contended that it was the beaded curtain obscuring the stairway that caused the fall and thus the tenant was solely liable. Further, the landlord pointed out that the tenant was solely in control of the premises. The lower court found that while the tenant’s engineer’s report indicated possible violations of building code, “i.e., a riser deviation in excess of allowable deviation; the lack of a handrail; the lack of visual cues that would indicate the presence of a stairway; and the mere presence of a two-step riser instead of a ramp,” these factors tended to show that any violations were in control of the tenant. Further, the building code did not apply to stairs containing less than three risers. Given all this, the Appellate Division focused on the relationship between the hanging beads and the fall, finding that this condition, which was created by the tenant, caused the fall, rather than any structural defects.

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