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Gonzalez v. Martinez

A-5109-04T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

SIDEWALKS; LANDLORD’S LIABILITY; NEGLIGENCE—When imposing liability for a dangerous sidewalk condition, it is the nature of a property’s ownership that matters, not the use to which the property is put when determining whether a building is residential or commercial.

A building abutted a sidewalk. On one side of the first floor was a grocery store. On the other side was a laundromat. Each commercial unit had its own entrance onto the public sidewalk. Above the two businesses were five residential apartments which were accessed through a single door located between the two commercial units. The building owner did not live in any of the apartments. One evening, one of the residential tenants, pursuant to his landlord’s instructions, placed household garbage on the public sidewalk in front of the residential entrance. Placed between several bags of garbage were “two transparent plastic light fixture covers, measuring approximately five feet in length by two feet in width.” Although the municipal garbage collectors removed the household garbage, they left the two pieces of plastic on the sidewalk. “Because it rained sometime earlier that day, or during the evening before, the plastic panels ‘were very slippery.’” A grocery store customer parked in front of the store and entered the grocery store. When leaving the store, intending to return to her motor vehicle, she slipped on the two plastic light covers that were “in front of the residential entranceway, one on top of the other.” She never noticed them. She sued the building owner and others.

The trial testimony “concerning maintenance of the sidewalk in front of the residential entranceway differed.” One of the three property owners testified that each individual tenant placed garbage on the sidewalk for collection by the municipality and that the commercial tenants placed their garbage for collection by private collectors. He said he gave instructions to all tenants as to where garbage was to be placed and when it was to be placed. He also testified that “[t]he operators of the commercial stores [were] to maintain the sidewalks free of debris; and upon his arrival at the property, each day at approximately 8:00 a.m., if he observe[d] any trash left upon the sidewalk by the garbage collectors, he remove[d] it from the sidewalk.” Another one of the building’s owners, when asked: “who was in charge of maintaining and cleaning that area [of the public sidewalk] in front of the entranceway for the [residential tenants],” responded that it was her husband and the tenants. “The tenants also cleaned.” The grocery store owner testified that he only maintained the sidewalk in front of his store and did not maintain the sidewalk in front of the private entranceway to the apartments or the laundromat. He testified that when he arrived at his store early on the morning of the accident, “he made a visual inspection of the sidewalk in front of his store, and did not observe any debris.” The tenant who actually placed the plastic light covers on the sidewalk testified that he had never seen the owners take care of the sidewalk and that he had only seen the owner when he was collecting rent. He testified that it was the building owner’s responsibility, not the tenant’s, to clean the sidewalk. He further testified “that he never observed the owner clean the sidewalk area ‘not even when it snowed.’” Lastly, he testified that “when he left the apartment [on the morning of the accident], he did not realize that the plastic covers had been left upon the sidewalk by the [municipal] garbage collectors.”

At the conclusion of the trial, the lower court “instructed the jury concerning the duty owed to an invitee by [the building owners]; the operator of the grocery store ...; the operator of the laundromat, including its employee ...; and the residential tenants involved in placement of the two plastic light covers upon the sidewalk.” The jury returned a verdict only against the building owner.

On appeal, the building owner argued that the lower court “erroneously determined that [the injured woman] held the status of a business invitee at the time of the accident because [the woman] had left the grocery store and was using the sidewalk as a member of the general public to gain access to her automobile.” The Appellate Division disagreed, saying “[a] negligence cause of action requires proof that a defendant owed a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty, and injury was proximately caused by the breach.” It pointed to the traditional duties of a property owner to those entering the property, classifying them as “business visitor, social guest or trespasser.” It then pointed out that “[a]n invitee, in the legal sense is ‘one who is on the premises to confer some benefits upon the invitor other than purely social’” one. Further, “[t]he owner or occupier of premises owes a duty to an invitee ‘to provide a ‘reasonably safe place to do that which is within the scope of the invitation.’” That duty is to “use reasonable care to make the premises safe.” Clearly, building owners, “by leasing their premises to commercial tenants, impliedly extended an open invitation to the general public to enter the commercial premises for the purpose of shopping therein and bestowing a direct economic benefit upon the store owners and indirectly upon the owners.” Further, “[a]mong the substantial benefits to commercial landowners is the ease of access to and from their establishments by the pedestrian public who have a right ‘to safe and unimpeded passage along the sidewalk ... .’”

Just because the injured woman had concluded her business in the grocery store did not mean that she lost her status as an invitee. According to the Court, “[s]he continued to be cloaked with the status of an invitee for such reasonable distance on [the building owner’s] sidewalk as to provide a safe means of egress from the grocery store.” Further, even if the lower court had mistakenly characterized the injured woman as a business invitee, the Court pointed out that “under the general principles of negligence,” the landowner still owed a duty of care. The building owner “was responsible for maintaining in reasonably good condition the sidewalks abutting the property and [were] liable to pedestrian injured as a result of their negligent failure to do so.” While residential property owners are not responsible for dangerous conditions on their sidewalk unless they created the condition themselves, it is “the nature of ownership that matter[s], not the use to which the property is put,” when determining whether a property is residential or commercial. Here, the property was deemed to be commercial in nature because “the premises contain two commercial properties on the first floor, and five non-owner occupied apartments on the upper floors.”

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