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Condominium Not Responsible For Clearing Snow From Sidewalk

In an a recent appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on whether a 104-unit condominium complex is liable in tort for an injury sustained by a pedestrian on its abutting public sidewalk.

Their answer was no, the condominium complex was not liable, because it was a residential, as opposed to commercial building.

The Common Law

Under the common law, owners of property were not responsible for maintaining sidewalks abutting their property. This law developed in the context of the government having the responsibility for the public rights-of-way.

As cities grew, many municipalities had moved the responsibility for maintaining sidewalks, by ordinance, to private citizens. The property owner is generally in the best position to become aware of problems and then correct the condition. The same logic compels the landowner to also remove snow and ice.

Public Policy

Up until the 1980s, landowners still had no liability for injuries caused by their sidewalks. In Stewart v. 104 Wallace St., the court found reason to change the common law rule.

The court found that "sidewalks provide commercial owners with easy access to their premises and increase the value of their property."

They also justified the change because the common law left innocent victims with no recourse and provided no incentive for landowners to maintain and clear their sidewalks.

Is There A Duty?

In order for negligence to exist, there must be a duty, and then a determination of whether that duty was breached. In Stewart, the court applied liability to a commercial landowner, through the following four factors analysis was used to determine the presence of a duty:

  • the foreseeability of sidewalk accidents;
  • the allocation of the risk of loss to the party best able to control that risk;
  • the distribution of the risk of loss to the party best able to bear it; and
  • the compensation of innocent victims.

The New Jersey Supreme Court notes that imposing sidewalk liability on commercial landowners was "particularly compelling" for two reasons: (1) the benefits that commercial landowners enjoy from safe sidewalks, such as the foot traffic of their patrons; and (2) the ability of commercial landowners to spread the costs of liability as "one of the necessary costs of doing business."

As for the determination of which properties will be covered, the court used the commonly accepted definitions of "commercial" and "residential" property, noting the "difficult cases to be decided as they arise."

The Majority Opinion

A condominium is something of a "difficult case" as the individual units are owned by the individual members of the association, and the association is responsible for the common areas.

But, because unlike an apartment complex, where the building owner attempts to generate a profit from the building, a condominium managed by the association for the good of all the owners, and not for a profit.

The court finds the condominium, because it is not a for-profit entity, falls under the "residential" classification. The majority of the court seems as much moved by concern for maintaining the clarity of the residential/commercial dichotomy, (and the ease with which courts can apply the "bright line test") and replacing it with an unpredictable case-by-case balancing test that would be extremely difficult to fairly and consistently administer and that would lead to tremendous uncertainty.

The Dissent

The dissent disagrees with this. They thought that while the condominium was not a for-profit business, because they insure the entire structure and common areas, it would unfair or uncertain for them to carry the responsibility of keeping the sidewalks clear in the winter.

The dissent noted that a straightforward public policy analysis "leads ineluctably to the conclusion that the condominium association in this case should be liable because:

  • it should have foreseen the fall;
  • it was in the best position to have taken prophylactic measures to prevent it;
  • and it was better able to bear the risk of loss than the innocent pedestrian, who should not go uncompensated."

Nonetheless, the dissent lost. Condominiums are not liable for injuries sustained on their sidewalks in New Jersey, because they are a residential building.

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