On August 12, 2015, in Qian v. Toll Brothers, Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin ruled that deciding sidewalk liability in slip and fall accidents is determined not by who uses the sidewalk, but by who owns the sidewalk.
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled that poorly maintained sidewalks, owned by condominium Homeowners’ Associations (HOA’s), can be held liable for slip and fall injuries. Determining if a sidewalk is privately owned or public property is a significant factor in assigning slip and fall liability. Sidewalk usage does not determine ownership.
The August 12th ruling overturned two previous rulings that determined condominium associations had residential sidewalk immunity. However, in this recent ruling, Justice Albin said private sidewalks, owned by a common-interest community, do not warrant immunity.
In this particular case, the slip and fall accident victim was a resident of a Plainsboro, New Jersey 55 and over development containing 102 single-family homes. The plaintiff walked to the market to do some shopping. Freezing rain developed while she was in the store and upon her return, she suffered injuries from falling on the condominium’s untreated, icy sidewalk.
Landscape Maintenance Services (LMS) was contracted by Integra Management Corp., who was employed by the condominium’s homeowners association to clear two inches or more of snow or ice. The HOA was obligated to pay LMS for extra services for cleaning any accumulation of two inches or less. No additional services had been requested on the day of the plaintiff’s accident.
Condominium Associations Liability
Municipal ordinances sometimes require homeowners to maintain their sidewalks. Commercial proprietors have a common-law onus to maintain sidewalks adjacent to their premises. However, in Luchejko v. Hoboken (2011), the Supreme Court ruled that a condominium association had no obligation to maintain public sidewalks bordering its property. The liability imposed by the regulation did not equate to wrongdoing in Luchejko.
In the Qian case, Albin noted that under the Condominium Act, N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(a), the association had a statutory obligation for the maintenance of all common areas and to maintain liability insurance. The Act implies that private sidewalks of a common-interest community are subject to tort liability. Supreme Court Justice Albin rejected the association’s argument that holding the association liable could expose individual homeowners to liability. He held that the lawsuit was not against the unit holders but rather the condominium association.
Condominium Act Prompts Safe Sidewalk Conditions
Residents of 55 and over communities are prone to slip and fall injuries. The Condominium Act was intended to motivate HOA’s to properly maintain private sidewalks within their developments and reduce preventable slip and fall accidents which will in turn reduce premises liability lawsuits and insurance premiums. This Supreme Court ruling will encourage homeowner’s associations to protect their residents by maintaining their property and sidewalks, keeping them in safe condition.