Robert B. Spawn reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
A recent New Jersey case involved a plaintiff-pedestrian who sued a defendant-homeowner after the pedestrian’s foot got caught on a raised portion of the sidewalk abutting the homeowner’s property, which caused the pedestrian to fall and break her wrist.
At the trial level, the pedestrian stated that tree roots on the homeowner’s property caused the elevation in the sidewalk, thus creating a defectively dangerous condition and subjecting the homeowners to liability. In response, the homeowners argued that the condition of the sidewalk had remained unchanged from the time they purchased their home until the date of the accident (a span of three years). Additionally, the homeowners contended that there had never been any complaints about the sidewalk during the time they had occupied the premises. The homeowners also asserted that the allegedly defective sidewalk was not the result of any affirmative conduct on their part, but due to a naturally occurring condition.
The trial court agreed with the homeowners and granted summary judgment in their favor, a decision which was then reviewed by the Appellate Division. In its analysis, the Court emphasized a well-established principle in New Jersey, namely, that residential property owners do not have a duty to maintain abutting sidewalks. Indeed, although commercial property owners possess this same duty, New Jersey has consistently drawn a sharp distinction between these two classes of property owners in the context of sidewalk liability.
The Court did note, however, that a residential landowner would be liable if she affirmatively created a dangerous condition on a sidewalk. But here, the Court explained, the existence of the tree and its corresponding effect on the sidewalk was a “natural condition” that did not subject the homeowners to any liability. The Court then stated that it would certainly be unfair to impose liability on the homeowners for a condition which they did nothing to bring about.
Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.