Responsibility for Ice Removal Could Depend on ‘Multi-Tenant’ Nature of Center

January 5, 2018
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Slip-and-fall accidents at commercial properties are, unfortunately, ubiquitous in the wintertime. As the owner of the property you’re likely to be pulled into any lawsuit. But whether you end up being financially responsible will be determined largely by whether it’s you or the tenant that is responsible for snow or ice removal. A recent New Jersey case demonstrates how the makeup of a shopping center—that is, whether it’s single- or multi-tenant in nature—is important to a court ruling on a case like this.

There, a grocery store customer who slipped and fell on ice in the strip mall’s parking lot sued the grocery store tenant, the center’s owner, and the snow-removal contractor and subcontractor for her injuries. She asserted that they all had a duty of care to keep the parking lot free of ice that posed a danger to customers. All four parties asked a trial court for a judgment in their favor without a trial, and a trial court ruled in their favor. The customer appealed. New Jersey appeals court affirmed.

The appeals court noted that the common area maintenance agreement between the tenant and owner clearly provided that the owner would provide snow and ice removal services for the common areas of the center, including the parking lot. But the customer argued that store employees throwing rock salt on the black ice after the accident indicated that the tenant was partly responsible for maintaining safe conditions.

The appeals court disagreed. It called on a past case, where a tenant being sued over an accident was in a multi-tenant shopping center and the property owner retained the responsibility to maintain the common areas, to support its decision that the tenant here did not owe a duty to the customer to maintain the common areas of the shopping center. In that case, the appeals court held that “the assignment of responsibilities in a lease, within the context of a multi-tenant shopping center, has an impact upon the scope of a tenant’s ability to address conditions in the center’s parking lot.”

The appeals court stressed that there would be serious policy cnsiderations implicated by imposing a duty on a commercial tenant to maintain common areas—for example, that duplicative maintenance efforts by landlords and tenants would create confusion and interference with each other’s maintenance programs. The appeals court also noted that uncertainty regarding the areas in the shopping center that each tenant would be responsible to maintain would encourage “shotgun” litigation.

Moreover, in other past cases, courts that have applied New Jersey law to similar situations have held that a commercial tenant in a multi-tenant shopping center did not have a duty to remove snow and ice from a common parking lot. “New Jersey would not impose a duty on an individual tenant for snow removal from the common areas of a multi-tenant parking lot when the landlord has retained and exercised that responsibility,” it concluded. The appeals court here couldn’t point to any facts that would justify imposing a duty of care upon the tenant to maintain the parking lot of the shopping center  [Spano v. Supervalu, Inc., d/b/a Acme Markets, et al., July 2016].