In Shields v. Ramslee Motors, 240 N.J. 479 (2020), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a commercial landowner is not responsible for a slip and fall due to snow and ice on the portion of the premises which was under the tenant’s exclusive control. This decision is significant as it represents a departure from the long standing theory of a property owner’s “non-delegable duty” to maintain their property in a safe and reasonable manner. Typically, this duty could not be “delegated” to another party, but in Shields, the Court drew a distinction between the duty to maintain an abutting public sidewalk versus the remainder of the premises.
In Shields, Plaintiff, a Federal Express delivery driver, slipped and fell due to snow and ice on the driveway while delivering an envelope to Ramslee Motors. Although the lease was silent as to snow and ice removal, the tenant, Ramslee Motors, was responsible for maintaining the property as if it was the “de facto owner.” Shields filed suit against the owner-landlord of the commercial property and the tenant, Ramslee Motor.
At the trial court level, the landlord was granted summary judgment as the court concluded that the landlord was not responsible for removing the snow and ice from the driveway. The Appellate Division subsequently reversed, holding that the landlord owed Plaintiff a non-delegable duty to maintain the premises. Under this long standing principle, a landlord could not allocate the duty to maintain the premises to another party, either through the lease or a contract. The Supreme Court granted the Defendant’s petition for certification, reversed the Appellate Division’s decision and reinstated the summary judgment for the landlord.
At issue is whether a commercial landlord has a non-delegable duty to maintain the demised premises free of snow and ice where the property is in sole possession and control of the tenant. After concluding that the landlord relinquished full control over the premises, the Supreme Court next applied the “Hopkins factors” to determine whether imposing a duty of reasonable care would be consistent “with basic fairness under all of the circumstances in light of considerations of public policy.” Hopkins, 132 N.J. 426, 439 (1993). Specifically, the four Hopkins factors to consider are “the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution.” Ibid.
In applying the Hopkins factors, it was clear that no relationship existed between the parties as Plaintiff was an “invitee” of the car dealership. Next, the Court determined that it would not be “fair” to place responsibility on a landlord who lacked control over the property and the means to eliminate the risk. Similarly, it would be impractical to require the landlord to prevent a temporary condition caused by weather on property where it does not maintain any control or presence. Finally, imposing liability on the landlord would not serve any public policy interest as Plaintiff can still pursue a claim against the tenant. Under the circumstances, the Court concluded that fairness precluded the landlord’s liability for plaintiff’s accident and declined to hold the landlord responsible for property over which it had relinquished control.
The Shields’ decision is significant as it limits a landlord’s liability for accidents caused by transient conditions, such as snow and ice, where the landlord relinquishes total control and maintenance obligations over the premises. In a concurring opinion, Justice Albin emphasized the transient nature of the snow and ice and the lack of a reasonable opportunity for the landlord to repair the dangerous condition. Accordingly, a distinction may be made between temporary and non-temporary conditions in determining a commercial landowner’s liability, regardless of the lease terms. Notwithstanding this ruling, the Court made it clear that abutting public sidewalks remain under the purview of the landlords’ nondelegable obligations to maintain and address.
1] Hristo “Chris” Zevlikaris, Esq. is a Shareholder in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. He defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and Federal Courts. Chris can be reached at CZevlikaris@grsl.com.
 Loudie V. Srebnick, Esq. is an Associate in GRSLB&G’s Litigation Department. She defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey and New York State and Federal Courts. Loudie can be reached at LSrebnick@grsl.com .