Safety: The Duty of New Jersey Residential and Commercial Landlords
New Jersey law requires residential and business landlords to maintain safe rental premises.
While New Jersey is a small state in square miles, it has a relatively robust population of around 8.5 million people. The latest U.S. Census data showed that about 65 percent of New Jersey Residents are homeowners, meaning a couple of million people probably rent their homes or apartments.
From the population centers of Bergen County and Newark to the bustling port of Jersey City across from Manhattan, and from small towns in agricultural areas and on the coast to struggling areas of urban blight, thousands of residential landlords provide a wide variety of housing to New Jersey residents. Being a residential landlord in New Jersey carries with it many legal responsibilities.
Opportunities for commercial landlords also abound in New Jersey because of the need for assorted building types in which to conduct the business of major New Jersey industries like tourism and gambling, manufacturing, retail, agriculture, shipping, research, chemical and oil production and apparel assembly. While the prospects for profitable leasing of business property are many, commercial landlords also owe specific legal duties to their tenants and the public.
Typical Unsafe Conditions
The concept of premises liability encompasses the broad idea that a landowner is responsible for providing safe conditions for those living on or visiting his or her property. For example, in snowy or icy conditions, sidewalks and parking lots should be shoveled or plowed, and ice should be treated with sand or chemicals to prevent vehicular accidents and potentially dangerous falls. In addition, surfaces on which people walk should be evenly maintained to prevent tripping and falling.
Reasonable outside maintenance of buildings would include providing durable roofs, gutters and drainage systems to keep structures free of moisture and mold.
Inside leased buildings, utility systems such as heating, cooling, septic, electricity, gas and water should be in safe working order. Unsafe utilities can cause conditions or hazards such as freezing or stifling temperatures, electric shock, fire, release of carbon monoxide, sewer or natural gas and unsanitary conditions.
Buildings should be structurally intact and physical surfaces like floors and stairs should be well maintained, free of uneven surfaces to prevent unsafe falls. Premises should be environmentally safe with healthy air and no potential exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos or lead.
Residential Landlord Responsibilities
Forty years ago in Marini v. Ireland the Supreme Court of New Jersey adopted the "implied covenant of habitability and livability fitness for residential dwellings" standard. In every residential lease, the law implies that the landlord will rent the property without latent defects in necessary mechanical systems and will provide a sound physical condition. In essence, the landlord warrants that the residential rental property will be maintained in livable condition.
Habitability also encompasses the element of security in person and property, and protection from foreseeable criminal activity. Importantly, the warranty applies not only to individual living spaces, but also to areas used in common with other tenants like entryways, stairwells and elevators. Common areas must be reasonably safe for the use of both tenants and their guests.
In addition to the implied warranty of habitability, New Jersey statutes, regulations and local ordinances establish detailed residential rental property standards to protect against unsafe structures and fires, and to protect the health and safety of tenants and their guests. Landlords can be steeply fined for breaking these laws and failure to comply with the landlords' standard of conduct effectively established by housing laws may be evidence of legally negligent conduct.
A commercial landlord who leases property for business, rather than residential, purposes must also exercise reasonable care to maintain safe conditions on the rental premises. The commercial landlord must make reasonable inspections of the property looking for dangerous conditions. If someone is injured because a commercial landlord failed to either repair or warn of a hazardous defect that the landlord knew about or should have reasonably discovered, the landlord will likely be responsible for the accident.
In addition, if a commercial landlord retains control over or use of any part of the premises, such as a connected storage area, it must be maintained in a reasonably safe manner to protect the adjoining tenant and its business patrons.
Even where a dangerous condition on adjoining or nearby property may threaten the safety of the leased premises, the commercial lessor must take affirmative action to contact other property owners or government officials to resolve the problem. An example of this type of liability could be if a patron trips on a defective public sidewalk leading from the leased business building to its adjoining parking lot, where the landlord knew or should have known of the danger with reasonable inspection, and made no effort to either alert the city or post a warning sign. However, liability in a given situation will depend on all the unique circumstances of that case.
Most importantly, commercial landlord liability may depend at least in part upon the conditions agreed to in the lease. For example, the landlord has the duty to lease a safely designed and constructed building from which the renter can conduct business. However, if, for example, the parties agree in the lease that responsibility for ongoing maintenance of the inside of the building will be borne by the renter, the landlord should not be responsible for injuries from negligent upkeep of the building interior by the renting business.
Commercial landlords may also be subject to laws regulating the health and safety conditions of employees. For example, if a landlord rents space to a business that employs people on the premises, local law may require that the landlord maintain a certain temperature in the building during work hours.
Seek Legal Advice
New Jersey landlords should establish relationships with knowledgeable attorneys for direction and guidance on how to comply with property owners' legal responsibilities toward tenants and the public.
If you or a loved one is injured on rental premises, whether residential or commercial, be sure to consult a skilled personal injury lawyer with experience in premises liability cases as early as possible to determine whether the landlord was negligent, and to find out how to preserve and pursue your legal rights.
In addition, if you are having trouble getting your landlord to respond to your complaints about unsafe or unlivable conditions on rental property, you should get reliable legal advice about if and when you may have the right to withhold rent, or make repairs yourself and deduct the cost from rent payments.