Last week, I wrote about an exception to the strict liability normally imposed on dog owners under New Jersey's dog bite statute. (A short time before that, I wrote about yet another exception to strict liability under the dog bite statute, so the exceptions are obviously more interesting than the rule.) This post is about a different dog bite case, Ward v. Ochoa, with a similar result even though it was not decided under the dog bite statute. Ward involved a home inspector who was attacked and severely injured while performing a home inspection. She sued the dog owners (who eventually settled) along with the real estate agency and real estate agent who were selling the house. Like the dog groomer in last week's post, however, the home inspector's claims were dismissed.
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 have written about the enforceability of waivers in health club membership agreements before, including just last week. Now the Appellate Decision has issued another decision on this same topic, Crossing-Lyons v. Town Sports International, Inc., which nicely illustrates the types of injuries that are covered by these agreements and those that are not.
In Stelluti, plaintiff was injured when the handlebars of her stationary bike dislodged and caused her to fall during a spin class. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that these injuries were covered under the broad release in plaintiff's membership agreement. It reasoned that exercising entails vigorous physical exertion (depending, of course, on the person exercising – I am not sure my time on the stationary bike this morning was terribly vigorous), and that the member assumes some risks — faulty equipment, improper use of equipment, inadequate instruction, inexperience, poor physical condition of the user, or excessive exertion — as a result. While a health club must maintain its premises in a condition safe from known or discoverable defects, it need not ensure the safety of members who voluntarily assume some risk by engaging in strenuous physical activities that have a potential to result in injuries.
When is a sleeping dog a dangerous condition? This is the burning question that the Appellate Division answered in Parella v. Compeau.
In Parella, plaintiff attended Christmas dinner at a friend's house along with approximately 20 other guests. After the second course, she got up from her chair to put her dish in the kitchen sink and check on her child who was in an another room. To do so, she had to walk behind several seated guests. She did not have to ask anyone to move until she got to the last guest in the row. That guest moved her chair in and plaintiff made a move familiar to anyone who has been to a crowded holiday dinner — she "lifted [her] glass and plate, turned her back to the wall and shuffled her feet to pass behind [the] chair." "As she cleared the chair, plaintiff turned right to enter the hall toward the kitchen, and fell."
What caused her fall was a "tan, fairly large dog" that was "lying in the hallway, past the threshold of the dining room." The dog did not belong to defendants, the owners of the house and the hosts of the party, and was one of two dogs in the house for the party. When plaintiff fell, the wine glass she was holding broke, cutting her finger and severing a tendon. Plaintiff sued, alleging that defendants failed to warn of her of a dangerous condition — the dog — in their home. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants and plaintiff appealed.
Gym memberships are notoriously difficult to cancel. As a result, there is a fair amount of litigation over the cancellation, or attempted cancellation, of gym memberships, many of which are class actions. A recent Appellate Division decision, Mellet v. Aquasid, LLC, was one such lawsuit. As an added bonus, the decision also involves the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (TCCWNA), a once relatively obscure statute that has recently become popular — or controversial depending on which side of a lawsuit you find yourself — and about which I have written here and here.
In Mellet, defendant was a health club. Plaintiffs were members of the health club. Plaintiffs attempted to cancel their memberships but their requests were declined and the health club continued to bill each of them. When plaintiffs failed to pay, defendant attempted to collect these unpaid fees — which included monthly dues, late fees, collection fees, and administrative fees – from plaintiffs. In response, plaintiffs filed a putative class action, alleging that defendant's membership agreement and the fees it charged violated New Jersey law, including TCCWNA. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification and plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, plaintiffs raised a number of issues, but the most interesting one involved its claim that the broad waiver in the membership agreement violated TCCWNA. It provides, in part, that "[n]o seller . . . shall . . . enter into any written consumer contract . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time." Its purpose was to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties, but it has become a favorite of plaintiff's attorneys because consumers can sue under TCCWNA even if they have suffered no injury or loss, and because the statute allows successful plaintiffs to recover attorney's fees as part of their damages.