New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Slip and fall (pd)
The facts and legal issues in sidewalk slip and fall cases sometimes read like they are pulled from law school final exams. In New Jersey, the baseline legal rule is clear — owners of commercial properties generally have a duty to maintain, in reasonably good condition, the sidewalks abutting their property, while owners of residential properties do not. But does a property owner have a duty to maintain its sidewalks when:

  • the property is both residential and commercial, like a multi-family home where one unit is owner occupied and the others are rented (click here for more on that, but the short answer is that it depends on whether the property is primarily residential or primarily commercial ); or
  • the plaintiff is a tenant and sues the landlord after slipping on a sidewalk outside the rental property (click here for more on that, but usually, yes); or
  • the property is a commercial property, final judgment of foreclosure has been entered in favor of the lender, but no sheriff's sale has been scheduled (click here for more on that, but if the lender can be considered a mortgagee in possession, then yes); or 
  • the property is owned by a condominium or common-interest community (click here for more, but generally, yes if it's a private sidewalk within the condominium, no if it's a public sidewalk abutting the condominium); or
  • the property is residential and the fall is caused by sweetgum spikey seed pods that fell from a tree on the defendant's property (click here, but, no).

And now one more can be added to the list thanks to the Appellate Division's decision is Ellis v. Hilton United Methodist Church, where the question presented was whether "sidewalk liability applies to an owner of a vacant church."

Continue reading “New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?”

“Young Man, There’s A Place You Can Go . . .” (But That Place Might Not Be Immune From Liability Under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act If You Later Sue For Injuries You Suffered There)

     by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

YMCA (pd)These are not alternate lyrics to the the classic Village People song, YMCA, but they could be if the song were written by the Appellate Division panel that recently decided Lequerica v. Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges.

In Lequerica, plaintiff was injured during a group strength and conditioning class at the YMCA. At one point, the instructor had the the class run toward a wall, touch it, and then return to the wall where they started. According to the Appellate Division:

On her return, plaintiff realized she was going too fast, and when she tried to stop she fell forward and hit her head "extremely hard" on the concrete wall in front of her. While running toward the wall, plaintiff was competing with a friend to see who could reach it first. Before she fell, plaintiff put her arm out in front of her friend in an effort to beat her to the wall. Plaintiff testified she was running so fast she felt she would not be able to stop at the wall, that she "tried to stop herself," and that ultimately, she "tripped."

Plaintiff suffered "a concussion, a large scalp laceration, and a left wrist fracture." She sued the YMCA and the instructor.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) they were immune from liability under the Charitable Immunity Act, and (2) plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of negligence. Plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that the YMCA was not covered by the Charitable Immunity Act and that summary judgment was premature because discovery was not yet complete.

Continue reading ““Young Man, There’s A Place You Can Go . . .” (But That Place Might Not Be Immune From Liability Under New Jersey’s Charitable Immunity Act If You Later Sue For Injuries You Suffered There)”

Appellate Division: Arbitration Agreement in Non-Profit’s Bylaws Enforceable

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Contract(pd)
The enforceability of arbitration provisions is a hot topic in New Jersey right now. Several recent cases suggest that these provisions may be less readily enforceable than previously thought, or at least that courts are taking a closer look at them than they may have in the past. The author of an article in the NJ Law Journal even questioned whether New Jersey courts were "anti-arbitration." With this in mind, the Appellate Division's  unpublished opinion in Matahen v. Sehwail, in which it enforced an arbitration provision contained in the bylaws of a New Jersey mosque, is noteworthy.

In Matahen, plaintiffs and defendants were members of the general assembly in the mosque. The general assembly was comprised of all "active members" of the mosque, which was defined as "those who attend prayers regularly, participate 'actively' in mosque 'activities,' abide by the bylaws, pay dues, and practice Islam daily." The general assembly was the highest authority in the mosque, but the Board of Trustees, "which represent[ed] the general assembly," was the highest "policy-making authority" in the mosque. 

In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that certain defendants used the mosque's credit cards for personal expenses, conspired to keep a former employee on the mosque's health insurance plan after he stopped working for the mosque, and used the mosque's funds to pay for one of defendant's children's school tuition. Rather than filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved to compel arbitration, under a provision in the mosque's bylaws, which provided:

The board shall create an Islamic Arbitration Committee of 3-5 members in case of disagreement among board members or general assembly members of matters related to the center, such committee shall consist of a Lawyer, an Imam, and Community Leaders. All disputes arising hereunder shall be resolved by arbitration by the aforementioned committee pursuant to policies and procedures established by such committee from time-to-time. All parties involved shall approve of the members of the Arbitration Committee. Decisions of the committee shall be binding on all parties and may be entered in a court of competent jurisdiction.

(emphasis added). The trial court denied the motion, holding that the claims alleging misuse of corporate funds "address those types of concerns that are standard in a corporation type dispute," and therefore "clearly belong in a court to be adjudicated." Defendants appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, primarily because of the "utmost latitude" given to non-profits in the "regulation and management of intracorporate affairs." The Appellate Division noted that "a non-profit organization's private law is generally binding on those who wish to remain members," and "only the most abusive and obnoxious by-law provision could properly invite a court's intrusion into what is essentially a business thicket." The arbitration agreement in Matahen did not rise to this level.

Reading the arbitration provision in the bylaws as a whole, the Appellate Division had little difficulty holding that the Board and general assembly intended that all disputes pertaining to the mosque be handled through arbitration. Because the claims asserted in the complaint "concerned mosque affairs," the Appellate Division held that they fell within this provision notwithstanding that, as the trial court held, they may have also been justiciable in court.

Among other things, plaintiffs argued that the provision was unenforceable because it was not contained in a contract, but merely in the mosque's bylaws, to which, plaintiffs claimed, they were not parties. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that, as a matter of law, "by-laws of a voluntary association become a part of the contract entered into by a member who joins the association."

The Appellate Division also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it failed to "advise those subject to [it] that they [ ] waived their right to maintain an action in court." While the Appellate Division acknowledged that the provision did not reference waiver, this shortcoming did not render it unenforceable. The Board and the general assembly shared the authority to amend the bylaws, but never saw fit to amend them to include any reference to waiver. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that it was "incongruous for plaintiffs to complain the arbitration clause [was] defective and unenforceable when they were part of the two intra-corporate bodies responsible for its contents." The Appellate Division further held:

Plaintiffs' position is far different from parties to the typical contract, where generally each party seeks to advance its own interests and not those of the other. There was no "adverse" party here who sought to induce plaintiffs to enter into a contract containing an arbitration clause that failed to contain the subject waiver, hoping to gain an advantage. Plaintiffs merely find themselves facing a bylaw they either composed or ratified by failing to amend its contents.

Accordingly, the arbitration provision was enforceable notwithstanding the lack of any reference to waiver of the right to sue in court.

Ultimately, the Appellate Division's holding in Matahen is noteworthy, not because it signals a shift in the recent scrutiny of contractual arbitration provisions in general, but because it suggests that courts may be more likely to enforce such provisions in specific situations involving the governance of non-profit organizations.