New York Supreme Court Holds an Out Of Possession Landlord Is Not Liable for an Alleged Defect as It Is Not Contractually Responsible for Repairs or Maintenance of Its Property

In Compeau v. Metro. Museum of Art, 2023 Slip Op 30541(U), (NY Sup. Ct. 2023), the Court granted defendant New York City’s (“NYC”) motion to dismiss on the grounds that NYC was not responsible for the maintenance, operation, or control of the museum premises.  This case provides additional guidance on out of possession landlord premises liability when a lease redirects an out of possession landlord’s responsibility for upkeep, maintenance, and repair of leased property to a non-residential tenant.

Plaintiff Compeau was injured when he tripped inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Met Museum”). Compeau filed an action against the Met Museum (the tenant of the building) and NYC (the owner of the building).

NYC argued it is not responsible for the maintenance, operation or control of the Met Museum and submitted its lease agreement with the Met Museum, which grants exclusive use of the entire building and assigns sole responsibility for maintenance of such premises to the Met Museum.

Plaintiff challenged the motion on procedural and technical evidentiary grounds and argued that substantial discovery was necessary before the Court could properly entertain a motion to dismiss NYC from the case.  The Court rejected these arguments, holding that the documentary evidence submitted in support of the motion—the lease agreement and Procedures Manual—were properly authenticated.  Turning to the substantive issue raised on the motion, the Court noted that the lease assigns sole responsibility for maintenance to the Met Museum, does not obligate NYC to maintain the Met Museum and does not bestow upon NYC a right of re-entry. Further, the Court pointed to the language of the Procedures Manual, which provides that the Met Museum “must perform all tasks necessary to keep its premises safe and in good condition” and also keep a “formal maintenance plan.”

The Court relied on Velazquez v. Tyler Graphis, Ltd., 214 A.D.2d 489 (1st Dept. 1995), and determined that the documentary evidence proffered by NYC established it is an “out of possession landlord that cannot be held liable for any alleged defect at the Met Museum.”  The Court further relied on Malloy v. Friedland, 77 A.D.3d 583 (1st Dept. 2010), and concluded that “a landlord is not generally liable for negligence with respect to the condition of property after its transfer of possession and control to a tenant unless the landlord is contractually obligated to make repairs or maintain the premises, or has a contractual right to re-enter, inspect and make needed repairs.” As NYC was not contractually obligated to make repairs or maintain the Met Museum and did not have a contractual right to re-enter, inspect or make repairs, the Court granted the motion to dismiss.

This case reaffirms the rule that out of possession landlords are not liable for negligence if the lease does not require the landlord to make repairs and assigns all maintenance to the tenant.  It serves as a reminder to commercial property owners of the importance of including provisions in commercial leases that shift liability to tenants in sole possession of a property by requiring tenants to maintain the premises and to strongly consider relinquishing the right to either inspect or re-enter the premises.

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