Where a Shopping Center Lease Requires the Landlord to Maintain the Parking Lot, a Tenant is Normally Not Liable to a Patron Injured in That Lot

Kandrac v. Marrazzo’s Market at Robbinsiville, 429 N.J. Super. 79 (App. Div. 2012).  “[A]s a general rule, when a commercial tenant in a multi-tenant shopping center has no control or contractual obligation to maintain a parking lot shared with other tenants, the common law does not impose a duty upon the tenant to do so.”  That was the holding of this opinion by Judge Espinosa. 

Plaintiff was injured when she fell in the parking lot of a shopping center after leaving defendant’s store.  Defendant was a major tenant of the shopping center.  However, defendant’s lease with the landlord provided that the landlord, whom plaintiff also sued, was responsible for maintaining the customer parking lot and other common areas.  The lease did not obligate defendant to do anything regarding the parking lot.

Defendant won summary judgment in the Law Division, and the Appellate Division affirmed after considering the pure issue of law that was presented under a de novo standard of review.  Judge Espinosa recounted the history of caselaw regarding liability for injuries on commercial property.  She noted that, ultimately, the issue of duty is one of basic fairness and public policy.  Cases that placed liability on a commercial landowner did not apply here, where defendant had no “control or maintenance responsibilities for a common area and … no contractual obligation to maintain such areas.”  The lease provision did not relieve defendant of all responsibility for the safe ingress and egress of its customers.  But the injury did not occur “in a location necessary to such ingress and egress.” 

Judge Espinosa concluded that since the landlord had responsibility for the parking lot, plaintiff was not without a remedy if she could not sue the defendant store.  From a fairness and public policy perspective, allowing suit against the store would encourage “shotgun litigation,” with injured plaintiffs suing every store in a shopping center in which they might have browsed.  Moreover, imposing liability on each store might lead to conflicts, inefficiencies, and balkaniazation in overall maintenance, as each store would seek to take actions that might interfere with the landlord’s maintenance.  Accordingly, the summary judgment for defendant was affirmed.