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Gomez v. Hilltop Estates

A-5008-00T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2002) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY— New Jersey is moving away from assigning different duty levels based upon classifications such as trespasser, licensee or invitee; the issue is now whether, in light of the actual relationship of the parties in all circumstances, the imposition of duty is fair and just.

A large apartment complex contained a free-standing, unmarked building containing a laundromat. The building was leased from the apartment complex. The complex assumed responsibility for maintaining the complex’s sidewalks, including those in the vicinity of the laundromat. The complex was “not a gated community, and members of the public [were] allowed access to the complex and its sidewalks without needing prior permission.” A man who lived a short distance away from the complex discovered the laundromat and had used it on at least a few occasions. To get there, he would drive his automobile through the complex. Although the complex’s representative argued that the laundromat was for the use of tenants and residents only, no signs were posted restricting access to, or use of, the laundromat to tenants only. No effort was made by the complex or the laundromat to prevent members of the public from “using either the laundromat or the streets and sidewalks providing egress or ingress thereto.” The only signage of a restrictive nature was with regard to parking. The nearest “no parking” sign to the laundromat was about 40 feet away. One day, the non-resident parked in a lot adjacent to the laundromat apparently across the street from the nearest restrictive parking sign. After using one of the laundry machines, he returned to his vehicle to get fabric softener. Along the route, he fell on a walkway gap and seriously injured a finger. The complex’s maintenance manager acknowledged awareness of the defective walkway.

The complex argued that the injured man was a trespasser or, at best, a licensee. The lower court held that the man held the status of an invitee. It reached that decision because it believed that the complex and the laundromat both benefitted from outside business and that there were no attempts or indications that either the complex or the laundromat discouraged such business. “There’s nothing I see, there’s not one shred of evidence to indicate that the landlord tried to keep [plaintiff] out.” On appeal, the Court held that, as a matter of law, the complex owed the injured man a duty as an invitee. “A landowner generally owes an invitee or business guest the highest duty, i.e., a duty of ‘reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on his or her property that the owner either knows about or should have discovered.’” Further, “[i]n the context of a landowner’s duty regarding injuries that occur on-premises, the analysis [in New Jersey] no longer relies on the injured party’s status. ... Rather, the ‘issue is whether, in light of the actual relationship between the parties under all of the surrounding circumstances, the imposition of a duty is fair and just.’” The Court did not feel it necessary to determine whether the complex actually profited from the injured man’s use of the laundromat “although the record [was] suggestive of this fact.” Based upon the facts before the Court, it saw “nothing unfair or unjust with imposing an ‘invitee’ standard of care upon [the apartment complex] as a matter of law.”


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