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Lenz v. Ridgewood Associates

Filed: December 15, 1981.

LAWRENCE O. LENZ
v.
RIDGEWOOD ASSOCIATES, A GENERAL PARTNERSHIP, AND WEAVER REALTY COMPANY, INC.



Appeal by plaintiff from Helms, Judge. Judgment entered 25 November 1980 in Superior Court, Guilford County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 21 October 1981.

Wells, Judge. Judges Martin (Robert) and Webb concur.

Wells

In one of his assignments of error, plaintiff contends the trial court erred in granting defendants' motion for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiff's evidence. We agree with plaintiff's argument and reverse.

The grounds stated by defendants in their motion clearly define the issues in the appeal. Defendants' motion asserted that because the evidence showed the ice on defendants' premises resulted from a natural accumulation, defendants had no duty to plaintiff; but that if there were a duty, defendants had not breached it; and that if there were evidence of a duty and a breach, plaintiff's own evidence showed him to be contributorily negligent as a matter of law.

We first address the issue of duty. At the outset, we emphasize the residential tenant-landlord relationship between plaintiff

and defendants in this case. The common law duty of a landlord to maintain premises in a safe condition so as to avoid injury to his tenants has been the subject of a number of decisions of our appellate courts. There are two lines of cases: one, those involving the condition of the premises occupied by the tenant, and two, those involving the condition of common areas, or those portions of the premises remaining under the control of the landlord. We are concerned here with the second line of cases, but emphasize that the two lines must be carefully distinguished. See Thompson v. Shoemaker, 7 N.C. App. 687, 173 S.E.2d 627 (1970). In the first line -- those cases dealing with the condition of the demised premises -- our appellate courts have consistently held that the failure of the landlord to maintain the demised premises in a safe condition does not ordinarily give rise to an action by the tenant for personal injury arising out of a defective condition of the demised premises. Robinson v. Thomas, 244 N.C. 732, 94 S.E.2d 911 (1956)(porch floor gave way); Harrill v. Refining Co., 225 N.C. 421, 35 S.E.2d 240 (1945) (service station door fell); Leavitt v. Rental Co., 222 N.C. 81, 21 S.E.2d 890 (1942) (ceiling plaster fell); Jordan v. Miller, 179 N.C. 73, 101 S.E. 550 (1919) (hole in stairway).*fn1 Floyd v. Jarrell, 18 N.C. App. 418, 197 S.E.2d 229 (1973) (rat bite). See also Knuckles v. Spaugh, 26 N.C. App. 340, 215 S.E.2d 825 (1975), cert. denied, 288 N.C. 241, 217 S.E.2d 665 (1975); Compare Flying Club v. Flying Service, 254 N.C. 775, 119 S.E.2d 878 (1961).*fn2

In the second line of cases, however, our appellate courts have recognized the duty of a landlord to safely maintain those portions of rental property over which he maintains control, including so-called "common areas", such as hallways, steps, and sidewalks. In Drug Stores v. Gur-Sil Corp., 269 N.C. 169, 152 S.E.

2d 77 (1967), plaintiff leased the basement of a building owned by defendants. Plaintiff's space was flooded after a heavy rain, causing damage to plaintiff's goods. Plaintiff alleged that defendant had failed to exercise ordinary care to provide proper drainage. The trial court sustained a demurrer to plaintiff's complaint. In overruling the court, our Supreme Court stated the rule in such cases as follows:

Where a landlord leases only a portion of the premises to a tenant and retains the remainder under his control . . . he is bound to use reasonable and ordinary care in managing the part over which he retains control, and is liable for negligence in respect thereof proximately resulting in injury to his tenant.

In support of the quoted rule, the court in Drug Stores cited Steffan v. Mieselman, 223 N.C. 154, 25 S.E.2d 626 (1943), where the court affirmed a judgment for plaintiff for damages to his restaurant resulting from the overflow of his landlord's second story toilet.

In Hood v. Mitchell, 206 N.C. 156, 173 S.E. 61 (1934), the Court upheld recovery by plaintiff-tenant for injuries he received as a result of defendant-landlord's negligent failure to properly maintain an ...


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