Lack of contractual responsibility for maintenance of property does not relieve commercial unit owner from duty of care to plaintiff

February 20, 2013

Despite a developer’s contractual responsibility for maintenance and repair of an area outside a commercial condominium unit, the owner of that unit owes a duty of care to the employee of an independent contractor with regard to a hazardous condition in that same location, according to the Appellate Division’s published decision in Nielsen v. Wal-Mart Store #2171 (A-2790-11T1). The Court balanced  a number of factors in concluding that the lack of ownership or control of the area did not absolve Wal-Mart of liability, including the relationship of the parties, the attendant risks, the nature of the risks and ultimately, fairness to the innocent plaintiff.

The plaintiff, William Nielsen, was injured when he slipped and fell in a shopping plaza in Princeton while in the course of his employment with Ecolab, Inc., which had been hired by Wal-Mart to exterminate pests. He had been instructed by the store to access various entrances from the exterior of the unit owned by Wal-Mart. The perimeter of the store, where plaintiff fell, was owned by the developer, who, pursuant to the master deed, agreed to “supervise, administer, operate, manage, insure, repair, replace and maintain” the common elements. The plaintiff subsequently filed suit against Wal-Mart, and unsuccessfully attempted to amend the complaint to name the developer as a defendant more than two years after the action’s accrual, at which point the statute of limitations had run. At trial, a jury found Wal-Mart 80 percent negligent and awarded plaintiff damages of $400,000. Wal-Mart’s motion for a new trial was denied.

On appeal, Wal-Mart argued that the trial court erred in failing to distinguish between the duty owed by a business owner on and off its premises. The Appellate Division stated that case law supports the imposition of liability beyond the boundaries of a commercial land occupier’s property (i.e. to abutting sidewalks and adjacent public roadways). Likewise, while a lack of ownership or control of an area has relevance in determining the existence of a duty of care, the Court noted it is not dispositive. The Court also indicated that the private contractual arrangement of duties between a commercial unit owner and developer is simply another factor to be considered in the analysis.

 

Ultimately, the Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision based on foreseeability and fairness grounds. Wal-Mart directed the plaintiff to use the unit’s perimeter to perform extermination work, and as such, was aware that its invitees and passersby might foreseeably traverse the area outside the unit. The Court also suggested that, despite no contractual obligation to maintain an area, a business owner, such as Wal-Mart, would be encouraged to alert the responsible entity of a hazardous condition if a duty of care was imposed on that unit owner.

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