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Before the Slip and Fall: Lease Drafting Guidance for Tenants

Scott R. Kipnis

Some of the most prevalent, mundane, and time- and money-consuming claims that tenants find themselves litigating stem from slip-and-fall accidents in shopping center common areas. The lease between landlord and tenant, specifically the allocation of maintenance obligations as well as indemnification and insurance provisions, is often the determining factor of the outcome in such cases. It is determinative of which party’s insurer is obligated to defend the claim. As demonstrated by the analysis of the Second Judicial Department of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., v. Valley Forge Insurance Company (“Atlantic”)[1], specificity in drafting can be key to shielding tenants from liability and effectuating the intent of the parties.

Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., v. Valley Forge Insurance Company — Procedural background

The tenant, Linea 3 Corporation d/b/a Marilena Imports (“Tenant”), leased space in a commercial building in Rockland County, New York, from Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., (“Landlord”) in which it operated a wedding and party supplies store. In the underlying personal injury suit[2], Tenant’s employee was allegedly injured after falling on black ice in the building’s parking lot while walking from his car to work. The injured employee brought an action to recover damages for his injuries in the Kings County Supreme Court against the Landlord and Universal Strapping Corp. (“Universal”), which operated a business in the same building and was owned by the same principals as the Landlord.[3]

Tenant maintained a commercial liability insurance policy with Valley Forge Insurance Company, and Landlord and Universal had a commercial liability insurance policy from Citizen Insurance Company of America. Landlord tendered the defense of the claim to Valley Forge, which denied the tender. Thereafter, Landlord impleaded Tenant and Tenant moved for, and was granted, summary judgment. Landlord then commenced an action seeking a declaratory judgment action in the Rockland County Supreme Court that Valley Forge and Tenant were obligated to defend and indemnify it in the personal injury action as required by Tenant’s insurance policy and by the indemnification language in the lease.

The Rockland County Supreme Court granted summary judgment in favor of Valley Forge and dismissed the complaint, finding that under the terms of the governing lease neither Tenant nor its insurer had any duty to defend or indemnify Landlord in the personal injury action. Landlord then appealed the decision and sought a judgment declaring that Tenant’s insurance company was obligated to defend and indemnify Landlord in the personal injury action. The Second Judicial Department of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York affirmed the order of the Rockland County Supreme Court.

Case analysis

In evaluating the merits of the Landlord’s appeal, as well as Valley Forge’s motion to dismiss the action brought in the Rockland County Supreme Court, the courts addressed the following:

  1. which party was responsible for the maintenance of the parking lot under the lease,
  2. the indemnification language under the lease and
  3. the insurance coverage in effect at the time of the alleged slip and fall.

Maintenance and indemnification issues

The lease between Landlord and Tenant provided that the parking lot was a common area outside of the leased Premises and that Tenant had no obligation to maintain the common areas; Tenant’s only obligation was to contribute toward the expense of common area maintenance. Under the lease, Landlord was responsible for common area maintenance, including the removal of snow. The lease further provided that Tenant would “defend, indemnify and hold Landlord harmless from and against any and all suits, claims, actions, damages, loss, expense or liability, including reasonable attorneys’ fees arising out of or in connection with any act or omission of Tenant...arising out of, or in connection with, Tenant’s use and possession of the [leased] Premises.”[4]

Therefore, the Rockland County Supreme Court held that Tenant neither leased the parking lot nor had any responsibility for snow and ice removal. Additionally, Tenant only indemnified the Landlord for Tenant’s acts and omissions in connection with the leased premises, and this indemnification did not extend to the common areas.

Insurance coverage and additional insured status issues

The lease required both Landlord and Tenant to obtain commercial liability insurance. Tenant’s insurance policy included an endorsement covering the Landlord as an additional insured for “liability arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of that part of the premises leased to [Tenant] and shown in the Schedule”.[5] The schedule stated the specific unit of the building leased by Tenant and did not reference the common areas.

While the Supreme Court Appellate Division held that a party named as an additional insured is entitled to the same coverage as the policyholder,[6] because the additional insured endorsement was limited to liability “arising out of” the “ownership, maintenance or use” of the “premises leased” to Tenant, and since Tenant neither leased nor maintained the parking lot, the insurance policy did not provide coverage for the alleged injury. Therefore, Tenant’s insurance company had no duty to indemnify or defend the Landlord for the slip and fall.

Key points of analysis

Here, the lease was clear that Tenant was not responsible for parking lot maintenance. Further, because Tenant only indemnified Landlord for claims related to Tenant’s use and possession of the premises, which did not include the parking lot, Tenant had no liability for the incident. In addition, Tenant’s liability policy naming Landlord as an additional insured only covered the premises and did not extend to the common areas. Based on the foregoing, and the absence of any allegation that any wrongful act or omission by the Tenant in the common areas contributed to the injury, Tenant and its insurer had no obligation to defend the injured party’s claim.

This case offers practical drafting guidance for tenants to ensure that they are likewise protected, either when sued directly by an injured party or are otherwise forced to defend such claims. By using practical common sense and narrowly defining the premises, setting forth each party’s maintenance obligations with specificity and tailoring the insurance and indemnification clauses as described below, tenants can take steps to protect themselves from the pitfalls of having to litigate personal injury claims.

Lease considerations when drafting

Define what you are leasing. The lease should expressly identify what constitutes the premises as distinct from the common areas. “Common areas” should be defined comprehensively to account for all existing improvements, and should also be broad enough to encompass all areas provided by the landlord for the common use of the tenants of the shopping center and their customers. Especially significant in the context of slip and falls, the lease should specifically define sidewalks as part of the common area, and not part of the premises. The differentiation between common areas and premises and narrowly defining what constitutes the “leased premises” is critical when it comes to each party’s insurance coverage, even where the tenant may be responsible for maintenance and repairs, as further discussed below.

Maintenance and repair obligations. The lease should unambiguously set forth the maintenance obligations of each party with respect to the common areas and the premises. Unless the parties have negotiated for the tenant to be responsible for performing certain common area maintenance or repairs, the lease should state that the landlord shall be solely responsible for maintaining the common areas. It should further discuss in detail what such common area maintenance entails, i.e., routine sweeping, seasonal plowing and snow and ice removal from both parking and sidewalks adjacent to or in front of the storefront. By including such details, it leaves little room for allowing the landlord or the injured party to advance the argument that such items are the responsibility of the tenant or impose obligations on the tenant that were not contemplated by the lease. To further protect a tenant from unbargained-for liability, the lease should expressly state that the tenant shall have no obligations with respect to maintaining the common areas, other than to reimburse Landlord, or, as applicable, that any reimbursement obligations are captured in the base rent.

Indemnification. As demonstrated in Atlantic, courts will look at the indemnification provisions of a lease to determine whether either party has agreed to indemnify or defend the other in such actions. When maintenance of the common areas is a landlord responsibility, a tenant will want to make sure that the landlord holds the tenant harmless and agrees to indemnify the tenant from and against all claims that arise in such common areas. The indemnification language should be clear that the landlord is responsible for anything that occurs outside of the premises or within the common areas of the shopping center, and that the tenant can in turn indemnify the landlord for claims arising inside the premises. While there can be a carve-out for claims resulting from one party’s negligence or, preferably, gross negligence, where a tenant is not responsible for common area maintenance, it would have to take some action that contributes to the condition causing the party’s injury in order for a negligence claim to prevail.

Insurance coverage and additional insured status. Under the lease, both parties should carry commercial general liability insurance parallel to their respective indemnification undertakings. In accordance with the above, the landlord should be responsible for insuring the shopping center, including the common areas, and the tenant should insure the narrowly defined premises. Most significantly for the foregoing, and equally as important as having insurance coverage in the first place, is making sure that each party names the other as an additional insured in its respective policy. As noted by the court in Atlantic, a party named as an additional insured is entitled to the same coverage under the policy as though it were the named insured. Simply put, the landlord should name tenant as an additional insured for the common areas, with such coverage being primary and noncontributory other than for gross negligence; and a lawsuit can be avoided.

Landlord insuring tenant’s risk. Where the tenant is responsible for common area maintenance, it should still attempt to have the landlord insure the common areas in order to limit its exposure to liability. Other than with regard to New York’s unique vicarious liability rule, the landlord will want to carry its own commercial general liability insurance covering perils unrelated to the tenant’s negligence, such as negligent design of the parking lot.[7] In situations where the tenant is in care, custody or control of the common areas but the landlord is insuring the risk, to avoid any doubt that the tenant is entitled to such coverage, the lease should expressly state that the landlord’s policy is intended to cover any common area maintenance that the tenant is required to perform. To further ensure that the tenant has an enforceable claim to coverage, the lease should be clear that the cost of such insurance is either included in the base rent or is otherwise being paid by the tenant to the landlord. The lease should also clarify that the tenant is required to be named as an additional insured and should specify that such coverage is primary and noncontributory. Having primary and noncontributory coverage in place eliminates the question of who is negligent, analogous to the waiver of subrogation (a concept born in New York to effectuate the public policy that landlord and tenant should not fight among themselves concerning an insurable loss). This also prevents the tenant from being deprived of coverage for which it has bargained due to a reconciliation process between the parties’ insurance carriers as to whose negligence caused the accident. Having the “primary and noncontributory” language in the lease related to the common areas protects the tenant as an additional insured, since the landlord’s carrier cannot seek contribution from any other policy unless the claim exceeds the amount of landlord’s coverage.

Conclusion

The facts of each specific case may ultimately determine the tenant’s liability. However, tenants can take steps toward limiting their exposure to claims resulting from slip-and-fall accidents in shopping center common areas by negotiating the provisions described above.

__________________________

Scott R. Kipnis, a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, is a member of Schnader’s Real Estate Practice Group, head of the group’s New York City office Real Estate Team and leader of the firm’s Retail Industry Team. He focuses his practice on closing deals for national and regional chains in leasing and retail property development transactions and regularly closes numerous office, warehouse and industrial leases. He has over 25 years of experience handling all aspects of commercial leasing, including construction-related disputes, permits, variances and diverse developmental issues. He can be reached at skipnis@schnader.com.


[1] Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., v. Valley Forge Insurance Company, 150 A.D.3d 1182 (2d 2017).

[2] Raven v. Universal Strapping Corp., Supreme Ct. Kings Co. Index No. 4126/2011.

[3] Workers’ compensation laws would have prohibited the plaintiff from directly suing his employer.

[4] Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., v. Valley Forge Insurance Co., Supreme Ct., Rockland Co. Index No. 033887/13. Decision and Judgment dated Oct. 3, 2014.

[5] Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc., v. Valley Forge Insurance Company, 150 A.D.3d 1182 (2d 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Likewise, the tenant should also insure the common areas against comparable perils.