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."
As readers of this blog know, arbitration provisions in consumer contracts are difficult to enforce in New Jersey. (Click here or here for a refresher.) There was some belief that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P'ship v. Clark might change this, but it does not appear, at least not yet, that it has. In a recent case, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division was asked to revisit, in light of Kindred Nursing, its prior decision refusing to enforce an arbitration provision in a contract between a trampoline park and one of its customers. The Appellate Division did so, but affirmed its prior decision, holding that Kindred Nursing did not require New Jersey courts to change the manner in which they approach arbitration provisions.
I wrote about Defina in its first go-around with the Appellate Division — Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable. The underlying facts of the case are unfortunate. A child fractured his ankle while playing "Ultimate Dodgeball" at a trampoline park. Before entering the facility, the child's father signed a document entitled, "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." The document contained an arbitration provision, which provided:
If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Texas and that the substantive law of Texas shall apply.
Notwithstanding this provision, the child's parents sued the trampoline park in state court, alleging tort claims for simple negligence and gross negligence, and statutory claims for alleged violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act.
I know trampolines are fun, but everyone should know, thanks to The Simpsons, that they are a recipe for (legal) disaster:
Apparently some people missed this episode, as a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Panico v. Winner, demonstrates. [Note: In the second week of my first-year torts class, our professor told us that we were having a pop quiz. Being first-year law students, we all panicked. But then he shut off the lights and played this clip and we discussed all of the potential legal issues. It was a relief that it was not a quiz, but unfortunately this was the high point of my first-year torts class.]
In Panico, plaintiff was injured while jumping on a trampoline at a graduation party. The party was held at one of his classmate's homes and was attended by approximately twenty teenage guests. His classmate's mother originally planned to attend the party and serve as chaperone, but later learned that she would not be able to attend because of a work obligation. She told her daughter that she would have to cancel the party unless her daughter could convince the daughter's grandparents to attend. The daughter was able to do so. Her grandparents attended the party and, as a reward, became defendants in a lawsuit.
Turns out, a lot could go wrong. But, if it does, the neighbor whose tree limbs inspired you to climb the ladder, chainsaw in hand, probably won't be responsible, at least according to the holding in Corbisiero v. Schlatter.
In Corbisiero, plaintiff was a tenant in mixed-use property that was adjacent to defendant's property. In Spring 2013, some twigs and branches fell from tress located on defendant's property onto the property where plaintiff lived. Plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some of the branches that extended onto the property, which defendant did. A few months later, plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some more branches. Defendant told plaintiff that she would do it when she had time.
Apparently unwilling to wait for defendant to get to it, plaintiff spoke to her landlord about cutting the branches herself. Her landlord told her that "if [the tree limbs] grew over his property . . . we [can] cut them down." The landlord also told plaintiff that he would reimburse her for the cost of a chainsaw to be used to cut down the limbs. It is unclear if the landlord was suggesting that plaintiff both buy the chainsaw and cut the limbs down (as opposed to buying the chainsaw and having someone else do it), but plaintiff nonetheless chose to take matters into her own hands and do both.
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.