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."
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.
It seems like every week the Appellate Division issues a decision confirming, yet again, that residential property owners are not liable for slip-and-fall accidents that occur on their sidewalks. I have blogged about some of these cases here, here, here, and here. Apparently some plaintiffs have had enough, however, as the opening sentence in the Appellate Division's recent decision in Corry v. Barbieri makes clear:
In appealing the dismissal of their complaint, plaintiffs argue that "the time has come to abandon the unenlightened standard" that insulates residential landowners from liability for injuries caused by abutting sidewalks.
Unfortunately for plaintiffs in Corry, notwithstanding their pleas, the Appellate Division was not willing to change the law on residential landowner liability.
The facts in Corry were unfortunate but not uncommon. Plaintiff was walking with her family on the sidewalk in front of defendant's home when she tripped over a "raised and severely broken portion of the sidewalk." The fall caused her to suffer "a severe rotator cuff injury." She sued, defendants moved for summary judgment, the trial court granted the motion, she appealed.
In the recent past, I have written several posts about when property owners can be liable for accidents caused by their failure to shovel snow from the sidewalks abutting their property. The basic rules are well settled – residential property owners generally don't have a duty to shovel but commercial property owners do. Therefore, my posts focused on the more unique (and hopefully, interesting) cases. For example, one post discussed whether a property was residential or commercial, and therefore whether the property owner would be required to shovel or not, when the owner lived in one unit of the multifamily building and rented out the other units. Another post discussed whether a lender who obtained final judgment of foreclosure on a commercial property, but that had not yet taken title to the property through a sheriff's sale, was required to shovel the sidewalks around the building.
Now there is another case that is somewhat different than the traditional snowy sidewalk slip and fall. In Holmes v. INCAA-Carroll Street Houses Corp, plaintiff was a tenant in a property owned by defendants. She sued after she slipped, while on the way to her car, on "an accumulation of snow" approximately three feet from the doorway to her apartment. (The area where she fell was actually not a sidewalk, but was instead a "lawn or grassy area," but this distinction was not relevant to the court's decision.) A snowstorm has been raging since the night before. The snow had slowed, and perhaps even stopped, by the morning of the accident, but the storm had nonetheless dropped more than 15 inches of snow on the area. The conditions in the area were so severe that, when plaintiff's son called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the ambulance company refused because of poor road conditions. The roads were not clear until the following day, at which point plaintiff drover herself to her doctor's office to be examined.
Plaintiff alleged that defendant had a duty to clear the snow from the property. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to do so in the middle of a storm. The court agreed with defendant.
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.