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Trap Door Snares Potential Liability for New York City Deli Owner but Releases Building Owner

In 2011, a customer at the Ysidro Deli & Grocery in the Bronx fell into an open trap door in the floor which had been installed to make it easier to move goods to the store from the basement cellar. The injured plaintiff sued both the building owner and the store owner in the New York County case of Faye v. Rodriguez. The building owner moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claims against it and also moved for contractual indemnification against the store owner.

The lease of the property made the tenant responsible to take good care of the premises, make all non-structural repairs, and keep them in good condition. The landlord, although mostly absent from the premises, reserved the right to enter and inspect the premises and make repairs.

Generally, when the landlord transfers possession and control to the tenant, the landlord is not liable for negligence which occurs on the premises. The landlord can be liable, however, if it contractually agreed to maintain and repair the premises, or if it had a contractual right to enter, inspect and repair the premises and the accident was caused by a significant structural or design defect contrary to a specific statutory safety provision.

The deli owner indeed did allege violation of a couple of statutory provisions in an attempt to hold the property owner liable. However, the court held that these arguments were not properly made and also were inapplicable to the case. For instance, the store owner alleged violation of Administrative Code section 27-128 (currently 28-301.1), but this provision proved to be general in nature and not specific. Moreover, that section of law had been repealed three years prior to the accident. The other statutory provision cited was specific: Administrative Code section 507.1 Hoistway and shaftway protection requires that trap doors be kept closed and secured or otherwise protected except when being used to provide access. This provision, however, is not about a structural or design defect and so it too is inapplicable.

Finally, the lease contained a rider which required the tenant to indemnify the owner against claims of tenant negligence or use of the premises. The court saw no reason not to uphold this indemnity agreement and granted both motions of the property owner.