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Ahlstrom v. TMC Properties


September 30, 2010


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, No. L-9580-06.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 14, 2010

Before Judges Wefing, Baxter and Koblitz.

Plaintiff appeals from a trial court order granting summary judgment to defendant Donato Contracting, Inc. and its principal, defendant, John Donato, Jr.*fn2 After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.

Plaintiff was employed by Federal Express at a facility in Eatontown that it used in connection with its package shipping business. On August 21, 2006, while unloading a truck, plaintiff fell off a flip-down gate that had been attached to a loading dock extender. He commenced suit for the injuries he received in this fall. Donato had constructed the building pursuant to a long-term lease between Donato and Federal Express dated June 7, 1988, and plaintiff named Donato as a defendant.

The building contains more than 36,000 square feet. Donato built it in accordance with plans and specifications supplied by Federal Express. Shortly after Federal Express took over occupancy of the building, it discovered that truck drivers had difficulty aligning their trucks properly with the loading docks. It thus contracted with defendant Strange Enterprises for the fabrication and installation of flip-down gates to be attached to the loading docks. These gates, which had no railings or visual or tactile warnings that one was approaching an edge, were installed in 1991 and were in continuous use thereafter. Federal Express did not seek Donato's approval to install these flip-down gates, and Donato had no involvement in the design, fabrication or installation of these gates.*fn3

The Federal Express building is located in an industrial park owned by Donato. Donato testified in his deposition that he regularly drove through the industrial park but said he had no recollection of ever noticing that the flip-down gates had been installed.

In October 1991, Donato sold the land and building and had no further involvement with the premises. Plaintiff's accident that led to this litigation occurred nearly fifteen years after Donato sold his interest in the building.

Donato's lease with Federal Express, which was the sole occupant of the building, was a triple net lease. Under a triple net lease, "a commercial tenant is responsible for 'maintaining the premises and for paying all utilities, taxes and other charges associated with the property.'" Geringer v. Hartz Mountain Dev. Corp., 388 N.J. Super. 392, 400 n.2 (App. Div. 2006) (quoting N.J. Indus. Props. v. Y.C. & V.L., Inc., 100 N.J. 432, 434 (1985)). Under Article Six of its lease with Donato, Federal Express agreed to "take good care of the Demised Premises, interior and exterior, and the fixtures and appurtenances thereto...." Article Six also defined Donato's limited maintenance obligation as the landlord:

Landlord's responsibility for repairs during the Demised Term, as the same may be extended, shall be limited to structural repairs to the roof, the load bearing walls and members, footings, foundations, and exterior walls, provided that Tenant shall not have caused the need for said repairs.

Plaintiff recognizes that in New Jersey, a landlord such as Donato, who has leased the entire premises to a commercial tenant under a triple net lease, has no duty to maintain the premises in areas in which the landlord has not retained control. McBride v. Port Auth. of N.Y. and N.J., 295 N.J. Super. 521, 522 (App. Div. 1996) (recognizing that a landlord has no liability to the "employee of a commercial tenant in exclusive possession... for personal injuries suffered on the leased premises, due to a lack of proper maintenance or repair, when the lease unquestionably places responsibility for such maintenance or repair solely upon the tenant"); Milacci v. Mato Realty Co., 217 N.J. Super. 297 (App. Div. 1987).

Plaintiff seeks to avoid the principles enunciated in McBride, supra, and Milacci, supra, by invoking Article Twelve of the lease, which states in pertinent part:

Tenant may, at its expense and only upon Landlord's prior written approval, which approval shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed, make such alterations and improvements to the Demised Premises and install interior partitions as it may require.

We are not persuaded by the argument and agree with the trial court that Geringer, supra, is analogous to the present matter. In that matter, the plaintiff's employer, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife"), rented the entire floor of a building from Hartz Mountain Development Corp. ("Hartz") under a triple net lease. Geringer, supra, at 400. The plaintiff fell on an interior, carpeted stairway that had been installed by MetLife after it took possession of the premises. Hartz had approved the plans and specifications for the stairway. Id. at 395. She sued Hartz for the injuries she received in her fall, alleging that it had been negligent in the stairway's design, construction, repair and maintenance. Id. at 394. We affirmed the trial court's ruling that Hartz had no liability to the plaintiff for the stairway's maintenance and repair. We noted the following in our opinion:

Given the rather comprehensive nature of MetLife's use and occupancy of the seventh floor, as well as the carefully defined roles of the parties concerning repairs and maintenance expressed in their lease, we discern no "public interest" or other compelling reason to impose upon Hartz a duty to assure to third parties such as plaintiff that MetLife would carry out its obligation to keep the stairway in a safe condition. Nor is the "attendant risk" of a sort that warrants the imposition of such a duty. Additionally, Hartz's "opportunity and ability to exercise reasonable care" as to the stairway's condition... was, at best, limited. [Id. at 402.]

We agree with the trial court that those principles are fully applicable to this matter.

In Geringer, we went on to reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Hartz on the plaintiff's theory that Hartz had been negligent in connection with the design and construction of the stairway. Ibid. We rested that part of our analysis, however, on the fact that MetLife had submitted the plans and specifications for the staircase to Hartz, and Hartz had, in fact, approved them. Here, the record is barren of any evidence that Donato had any involvement at all in the design or installation of these flip-down gates. Absent such evidence, there is no basis to depart from the principles enunciated in Geringer, supra; McBride, supra; and Milacci, supra.

The order under review is affirmed.

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