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Geringer v. Hartz Mountain Development Corp.

October 24, 2006

BERNADETTE GERINGER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HARTZ MOUNTAIN DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, L-1468-02.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sabatino, J.S.C.(temporarily assigned).

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued September 13, 2006

Before Judges Stern, Collester and Sabatino.

Plaintiff Bernadette Geringer was injured after falling on an interior stairway within an office building owned by defendant Hartz Mountain Development Corp. ("Hartz"). The incident occurred on a floor that Hartz leased in its entirety to plaintiff's employer, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife"). She thereafter filed a personal injury action against Hartz and other parties. Her claims against Hartz were essentially predicated on a theory that Hartz, as owner and lessor of the premises, had been negligent in the design, construction, maintenance and repair of the stairway located within its building. On September 8, 2004, the Law Division granted Hartz summary judgment, and plaintiff now appeals from that final order.

Although we affirm the Law Division's determination that Hartz, based upon the terms of its lease with MetLife and the surrounding circumstances, owed no duty to plaintiff regarding the maintenance and repair of the stairway in question, we reverse the Law Division's ruling that Hartz lacked any duty to plaintiff as to the stairway's design and construction. Accordingly, we remand this matter for trial as to whether Hartz breached those discrete obligations in a manner that proximately caused plaintiff's injuries.

I.

In January 2000 plaintiff was hired by MetLife as a sales representative. The following month, on February 26, 2000, plaintiff traveled from her home in Missouri to a MetLife regional training center on the seventh floor of an office building owned by Hartz and located at 500 Plaza Drive in Secaucus, New Jersey. Plaintiff had never been to that building before.

That morning, while plaintiff was walking back to her training room with a colleague after a short break, she tripped on carpeted interior stairs and fell on her head and left side. She apparently sustained substantial injuries from her fall, requiring surgeries on her lower left extremities and multiple hospitalizations. Plaintiff thereafter sued Hartz in the Law Division, also naming several other defendants that are no longer involved in the litigation. Additionally, plaintiff pursued a workers compensation claim against MetLife.*fn1

As reflected by the testimony and photographs in the record, the stairway in question consisted of two steps, each about six inches high. The stairway led to a corner immediately adjacent to the top step, connecting to a raised portion of the seventh floor. The stairs were covered with a carpet that continuously extended from the floor area above the stairs to the area below the stairs, with no variation in color. No handrail was supplied. Two signs with red and white lettering, each ten inches by eight inches in size, were positioned on the walls next to the stairs, warning persons to "WATCH YOUR STEP."

MetLife built the stairway in connection with its modification of the seventh floor of the building, which previously had no elevated portion. MetLife hired its own architect and contractor to design and build the stairway. The plans and specifications were submitted to and approved by Hartz, through its vice-president of property management for the premises, Salvatore Gentile. As part of his review, Gentile performed a "walk-through" inspection of the work during its construction. MetLife also received building permits and certificates of occupancy for the stairway from the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Corporation (HMDC) and from the Town of Secaucus.

The lease between Hartz and MetLife contains a number of pertinent provisions. With respect to the preparation of the premises for MetLife's occupancy, Article 5 of the lease generally provides as follows:

Landlord [Hartz] shall deliver the Demised Premises to Tenant [MetLife] in "as is" condition. Tenant shall be responsible for all construction and work to prepare the Demised Premises for Tenant's occupancy at Tenant's cost and expense. Such construction shall be in accordance with Section 39.09 of this Lease.

[Lease, Section 5.01(b)(i)(emphasis added).]

Section 5.01(b)(i) goes on to detail the procedures for MetLife's "fit-up" of its portion of the premises:

Prior to performing any work in the Demised Premises, Tenant shall, within thirty (30) days of the date thereof[,] submit to Landlord for approval final plans and specifications for all construction work in the Demised Premises including, but not limited to layout, mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans and finish schedules ("Plans and Specifications"). Tenant shall employ licensed architect(s) and/or engineer(s) for the preparation of the Plans and Specifications. Landlord shall notify Tenant of Landlord's approval or disapproval of such Plans and Specifications. If Landlord disapproves, Landlord shall specify the reasons for disapproval and Tenant shall, within thirty (30) days of receipt of notice of Landlord's disapproval, resubmit revised Plans and Specifications that correct such items. [Id. (emphasis added).]

The next provision, Section 5.01(b)(ii), obligates MetLife to obtain the necessary municipal approvals for the construction, and to assure that the work complied with all building codes:

Tenant shall obtain and provide all design and architectural services necessary to perform Tenant's Work and shall be responsible for complying with all building codes and Legal Requirements in connection with Tenant's Work, prior to commencing any work in the Demised Premises. Tenant shall obtain a permanent certificate of occupancy of the Demised Premises for the Permitted ...


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