Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Frank R. Nerenhausen v. Washco Management Corp. (U.S.D.C.)

Filed: April 18, 2017

Opinion by: James K. Bredar, United States District Judge

            The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted landlord Defendants, Washco Management Corp., summary judgment when tenant Plaintiffs attempted to collect damages for an injury occurring in the leased premises after Plaintiff entered into a lease agreement waiving Plaintiff’s rights to all legal claims resulting from Defendants’ negligence.


            In April of 2013, Plaintiffs moved into a furnished townhouse, owned and managed by Defendants. On September 4, 2013, Plaintiffs signed a lease with Defendants, which was in force at the time of the critical events of this case. That lease contained an exculpatory clause purporting to disclaim Defendants’ liability for “any damage, loss, or injury to persons occurring in, on, or about the apartment or the Premises.”
            In compliance with the terms of the parties’ agreement, Plaintiffs’ townhouse was fully furnished. The furnishings included a coffee table with a metal frame and a top constructed from non-tempered glass. The table was located in the townhouse’s first floor family room.
            On January 4, 2014, as Plaintiff Frank Nerenhausen sat on the edge of the coffee table to tie his shoe, the glass top shattered. Broken glass punctured Mr. Nerenhausen’s right buttock, lacerating his pudendal artery and resulting in nerve damage.


(1)  Validity of the Exculpatory Clause under Maryland law

Relying on relevant case law and long-standing Maryland statute, the Court finds the well-established freedom to contract validates this lease agreement’s exculpatory clause.

The Court identifies two circumstances under which this exculpatory clause would have been invalid: (a) if the language of the clause was ambiguous; or (b) if the clause waived Plaintiffs’ claims with respect to liability for occurrences “on or about the leased premises or any elevators, stairways, hallways, or other appurtenances used in connection with them.” On the contrary, the Court suggests that exculpatory clauses waiving liability occurring within premises that are “within the exclusive control of the tenant” shall remain valid.

Because the language of the exculpatory clause at issue is unambiguous, and the injury suffered by Plaintiff was within an area exclusively controlled by the tenant Plaintiffs, the Court finds no reason to invalidate the lease agreement’s exculpatory clause.

The Court further articulates the meaning of what constitutes “exclusive control of the tenant,” pointing to Shell Oil Co, which states a landlord’s mere ability to enter the premises fails to render the premises not under exclusive control of the tenant. In other words, even though a landlord may enter the premises, barring other circumstances, the tenant still maintains exclusive control of the premises. Similarly, here, the landlord Defendants’ ability to enter the premises for a “reasonable business purpose” did not give reason to find Plaintiff was not in exclusive control of the premises.

Plaintiffs further allege they had no control over the selection and purchase of the table that gave rise to the injury, suggesting Plaintiffs did not have exclusive control over the premises. However, the Court notes that Plaintiffs cite no relevant law supporting this position. Consequently, Plaintiffs’ theory is dismissed.

(2)  Effect of Exculpatory Clause on Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim

The Court finds the exculpatory clause at issue successfully waived Plaintiffs’ negligence claim, as the language of the clause clearly and unequivocally indicates Plaintiff and Defendants’ intent to do so.

In Maryland, “contracts will not be construed to indemnify a person against his own negligence unless an intention to do so is expressed in those very words or in other unequivocal terms.” (Aldoo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 686 A.2d 298, 302 (Md. 1996)). Furthermore, an enforceable exculpatory clause need not use the word “negligence” or any particular “magic words,” but must “clearly and specifically indicate the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. (Id. at 304).

In the case at bar, although the exculpatory clause does not use the word “negligence,” Plaintiff nonetheless agreed to absolve Defendants from liability for any injury “occurring in, on or about the apartment of the premises.” Furthermore, Plaintiff agreed to absolve Defendants from “any liability or claim to the fullest extent permitted by law.” The Court concludes the only reasonable interpretation of this clause is that the parties intended to exculpate Defendants from all claims to the extent permitted by applicable law, which would include exculpation from claims of negligence. Accordingly, the Court finds the exculpatory clause effectively and unequivocally disclaims Defendants’ liability for their potentially negligent action with respect to the glass table that was instrumental in Mr. Nerenhausen’s injury.

The opinion is available in PDF.  

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