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."
I tagged this post in the "banking" category even though its only connection to banking is that it involves a slip-and-fall that occurred in a bank parking lot. But, it offers yet another example of something I have writtenaboutbefore — liability of property owners for accidents that occur on their property.
In Negron v. Warriner's Construction Co., plaintiff slipped on ice and snow in a PNC Bank parking lot that he was using as a short cut to get from his home to a nearby Dollar Store. A morning snow storm dropped approximately 5-6 inches of snow on the area. After the snow stopped, the parking lot was plowed and salted. Plaintiff, who lives across the street from the bank, actually watched the lot get plowed and salted. Several hours after the lot was plowed, a light snowfall covered the lot again with a dusting of snow and, in certain spots, ice underneath.
At around 9 pm, after the second snowfall, plaintiff left his home for the Dollar Store. "Rather than staying on public sidewalks, plaintiff took his normal route by taking a shortcut across the PNC Bank parking lot." This was apparently not uncommon in the neighborhood; residents regularly cut across the lot. There were no fences or gates preventing them from doing so, but there was a "No Trespassing" sign. There was also a sign restricting parking to only bank customers, but this was frequently ignored by neighborhood residents who parked their cars in the lot.
In the past, I have written about whether property owners can be liable for slip-and-fall accidents caused by ice and snow on their sidewalks. (Click here, here, and here for examples.) This is the first time I will address the related topic of whether property owners can be liable for accidents caused by "spiky seed pods" that fall from sweetgum trees on their property. Turns out that the source of the slippery sidewalk does not change the law too much for residential property owners.
In Neilson v. Dunn, plaintiff was injured when she slipped on spiky seed pods that fell from a sweetgum tree on defendant's property onto an adjacent sidewalk. The tree had been on defendant's property since she and her husband bought it, and plaintiff knew that there were seed pods on the sidewalk when she began her walk. Defendant also "employ[ed] a lawn maintenance contractor whose services include fall and spring clean ups." The most recent clean up occurred two month's prior to plaintiff's accident.
After plaintiff sued, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that she could not be liable for plaintiff's injuries because she had neither created nor exacerbated a dangerous condition on the sidewalk. She argued that the "seed pod accumulation" was a natural condition over which she had no control, and that she acted reasonably in retaining a lawn maintenance service to "periodically clean up any debris, [including the seed pods,] on her lawn and sidewalk." Plaintiff countered that defendant had a duty to ensure that her property was spiky seed pod free and that her failure to do so created a hazardous condition.
The latest chapter in the "can I be sued if someone slips and falls on the sidewalk in front of my house after it snows" saga has been written. In Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a condominium association was responsible for clearing snow and ice from the private sidewalks that it controlled, and therefore could be liable for injuries caused by its failure to do so.
The general law on this issue is well-settled. Historically, no property owners had a duty to maintain the sidewalks on property that abutted public streets, but this changed in the early 1980’s, when the New Jersey Supreme Court imposed such a duty on commercial property owners, but not residential property owners. Therefore, commercial property owners are required to remove snow and/or ice from the sidewalks abutting their property, but residential property owners are not.
In practice, however, the law has proven easier to state than apply. What about situations involving property that is both residential and commercial (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the injured party is a tenant who is injured on the landlord's property (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the property is in foreclosure (click here for more on that)? Or, the issue in Qian, situations where the property is a condominium or common-interest community?
There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."
I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.
In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.