Appeals Court Overturns Jury Verdict in Slip-and-Fall Case
Facts: A business owner slipped on a puddle of oil on the floor of the warehouse space he rented. He sued the trust that owned the property and the trustee (the defendants) for negligent maintenance of the premises and a jury trial was held. The jury ruled in his favor. The defendants asked the court for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), a practice whereby a judge may overrule the decision of a jury and reverse or amend its verdict. JNOV permits the judge to exercise discretion to avoid extreme and unreasonable jury decisions. The judge denied the request, and the defendants appealed.
Decision: A Massachusetts court reversed the judgment of the lower court.
Reasoning: On appeal, the defendants first argued that the judge should have allowed their motion for JNOV because the evidence didn’t support a finding that the defendants were negligent and because commercial landlords don’t have a duty to maintain leased premises in a reasonably safe condition. Alternatively, they argued that the judge should have granted them a new trial because of erroneous and omitted jury instructions. The court agreed with the defendants and remanded the case for a new trial.
The court noted that the tenant’s rented space included a garage, a small office, and a bathroom. The lease controlled the contractual rights and obligations of the parties as owner and tenant. The lease controlled the issues in the case, and there wasn’t evidence that the lease was amended either orally or in writing during the tenancy.
The jury was instructed on two potential theories of liability, based on: (1) the common law duty owed to a commercial tenant of leased premises; and (2) the contractual duty based on the terms of the lease, or any oral contract made pursuant to the lease. The judge explained the common law duty by stating that “an owner or possessor of land, in this case a trustee of a realty trust, owes a common law duty of reasonable care to all persons, including tenants. This duty includes an obligation to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances.” Moreover, he said, the obligation of one who controls a business premises, such as a trustee of a realty trust, is to use due care to keep the premises provided for the use of individuals, including tenants, in a reasonably safe condition.
The jury was then instructed on the defendants’ contractual duty pursuant to the lease: “A landlord, property owner, here a trustee of a realty trust, who binds herself by contract, such as a lease, to provide services to another party to that contract, the other party here being the tenant, owes a duty to that other party to exercise reasonable care to provide such services in accordance with the terms of the contract and to do so in a good and workmanlike manner. If she fails to exercise such reasonable care, that is breaches her contractual duties, and if as a result of such breach of contract the other party sustains damages which are a reasonably foreseeable result of the breach, she may be held liable in negligence for such damages,” he added. “Negligence in this case is when a plaintiff proves by a preponderance of the evidence a breach of either the common law duty of care or the contractual duty of care or both,” he concluded.
The defendants argued that a commercial owner has no common law duty of care to a commercial tenant to maintain the leased premises in a reasonably safe condition. The judge conceded that the instruction may have been in error and submitted a supplemental question to the jury to determine whether the common law duty, the contractual duty, or both, were breached. In response to the judge’s supplemental question, the jury found that the defendants had breached both their common law and contractual duties of care.
On appeal, the court reviewed the common law duty. It said that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to extend to commercial owners the duty that “even in the absence of an express agreement to keep rented premises in repair, the owner of residential premises must exercise reasonable care to assure that others legitimately on the leased premises were not subject to an unreasonable risk of harm.” Instead, there was a rule that “the owner of commercial premises is liable in tort for personal injuries only if either: (1) he contracted to make repairs and made them negligently; or (2) the defect that caused the injury was in a ‘common area,’ or other area appurtenant to the leased area, over which the owner had some control,” said the appeals court.
Here, the accident occurred within the leased premises and not on a common or appurtenant area. Furthermore, this case does not qualify for the exception to the common law rule that applies when a landlord exercises a high degree of control over the leased premises. The evidence here doesn’t suggest that the owner retained such a high degree of control. The judge’s instruction to the jury concerning the common law duty was erroneous, because it stated that the defendants, as commercial owners, owed a duty to the tenant to maintain the leased premises in a reasonably safe condition, stressed the appeals court.
The appeals court also reviewed contractual duty. The lease imposes no duty on the defendants to perform maintenance or cleaning on the leased premises. It does state that the defendants shall “make necessary repairs” and perform “routine maintenance,” but the duty imposed is actually on the tenant to allow the defendants access to the premises to make repairs or maintenance that the defendants deem necessary. The lease also assigns maintenance and cleaning responsibilities to the tenant: “Lessee shall not permit any rubbish or debris to accumulate on the leased premises unreasonably.” The defendants owed no maintenance or cleaning duties pursuant to the lease, the appeals court determined. “We find no evidence in the record that the lease was orally amended or that there was any consideration to support a contract modification to that effect,” it said.
Finally, if the defendants provided gratuitous cleaning services to the tenant on an irregular basis, the duty of care is to refrain from gross negligence, the appeals court clarified. The jury, however, wasn’t instructed on any of these alternatives. They were instructed only that the defendants had bound themselves by contract to provide the cleaning services. This instruction was also erroneous.
The defendants were prejudiced by the erroneous instructions, and the error wasn’t cured by the submission of the supplemental question to the jury, said the appeals court.
- Marino v. Mystic Realty Trust,October 2012