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Chambers v. Township of Howell

A-0081-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

MUNICIPALITIES; LANDOWNER LIABILITY —While there is an exception to the immunity given to public entities for liability for snow removal in the case of housing authorities that control parking lots of finite areas, when a finite size parking lot is part of a complex of parking lots, and the agency is not a public housing authority, that exception to immunity does not exist.

A bus driver was employed by a private bus company that kept its busses in a parking lot leased to both it and the local board of education. The lot was owned by a municipality. The bus driver was injured when she slipped and fell in the parking lot while walking to her assigned bus. The accident happened in the morning after snow, sleet, and freezing rain had fallen the previous night. She sued the municipality and the board of education, claiming that they both were negligent in maintaining the parking lot and that they each failed to cure a dangerous condition which caused her fall. Specifically, she alleged they inadequately removed the ice from the parking lot prior to her arrival for work. A liability expert testifying for the bus driver asserted that the dangerous condition existed because the parking lot had no drainage facilities and that the rock salt put down by board’s employees had melted the ice, but the resulting water refroze when it had nowhere to drain. A meteorologist testified that the dangerous condition was the result of precipitation that had fallen the previous night and then froze. The lower court dismissed the bus driver’s claim on motion and held that, according to common law, the municipality and the board of education, as public entities, were immune from liability for snow removal.

On appeal, the Court rejected the bus driver’s argument that there was a case law exception to the immunity given to public entities for liability for snow removal. The Court pointed out that the exception had been carved out for a claim against a public housing parking lot which consisted of a finite area. Here, the Court held that the exception did not apply to the parking lot in question because it was part of a larger municipal property with numerous lots and buildings, and that it would be wrong to treat each individual lot, even though operated by a different municipal agency, as a separate parking lot for the purpose of thwarting immunity from liability for the removal of snow and ice. The Court also found that the bus driver had not conclusively established that the lack of a drainage system caused her fall or that the conditions that caused her fall could not have been separated from the precipitation that had fallen the night before. Thus, the Court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the bus driver’ claims on the ground that neither of the bus driver’s arguments established liability on the part of the municipality or the board of education.

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