Condominium Homeowner’s Associations Liable for Bad Sidewalks in NJ
Different states have different laws related to responsibility for someone falling or slipping and suffering injuries. The Supreme Court of New Jersey just ruled that homeowner’s associations (HOAs) can be held liable if someone is injured due to a poorly maintained sidewalk. Failure to maintain sidewalks on private property has always had the potential to lead to financial liability for slips and falls on that property. This case serves to clarify the meaning of public versus private sidewalks.
Sidewalk Immunity in New Jersey
New Jersey has something called sidewalk immunity. This immunity is related to the distinction between commercial and residential properties. The initial issue is to determine who is responsible for maintaining a sidewalk. In the past, New Jersey’s Supreme Court held that commercial property owners are responsible for maintaining public sidewalks that abut their property, but residential property owners are not. In other words, if a pedestrian is injured on a sidewalk that abuts a commercial property, the owners of that property may be held liable for those injuries, but in the case of residential property, the owners are not liable to people injured on an abutting sidewalk. Back in 2011, the Court upheld this concept relating to a condominium complex, finding it to be a residential property with sidewalk immunity.
Public v. Private
On August 12, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided to expand upon the issue of condominium sidewalks in a case called Cuiyun Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc. In this case, a snowstorm resulted in about one and a half inches of ice on the sidewalks and streets of the Villas at Cranbury Brook. The residents at the Villas pay to have the common areas maintained, which includes removal of snow and ice. The HOA had the roadways salted, but did not have the sidewalks and walkways cleared. Plaintiff slipped and fell on the accumulated ice and injured her wrist and shoulder. In the end, the Court found that the sidewalk in question was not public, but rather a private sidewalk under the control of the HOA and therefore the HOA was required to keep it safe. Private sidewalks do not fall under sidewalk immunity for residential property.
In New Jersey, “the duty of care that a landowner owes to a pedestrian on a sidewalk on or abutting his property depends on whether the sidewalk is characterized as a public or private sidewalk.” The determination is not made by who uses the sidewalk, but who, “owns or controls” it. One “critical factor…is whether the municipality has sufficient control over or responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk.” If the sidewalk is private, the owner of the proper, “has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect those entering the property from dangerous conditions on the property.” In other words, on the private property, the owner must keep the sidewalk reasonably safe. This includes timely clearing snow and ice when it presents a danger.
This case helps New Jersey slip and fall lawyers to determine who is responsible when sidewalks are not properly maintained and someone is injured on them. In the future, attorneys will be able to use this opinion to point out the liability of privately controlled sidewalks, whether under the ownership of an HOA or an individual.