Jimenez v. Maisch

329 N.J. Super. 398, 748 A.2d 121 (App. Div. 2000)
  • Opinion Date: April 3, 2000

DRIVEWAYS; PERSONAL INJURY—A homeowner has no duty to a postal carrier to clear its driveway of snow after a blizzard.

A postal employee was injured when he slipped and fell on the walkway or driveway of a house while delivering mail following a severe blizzard. The postal carrier had delivered mail to the house and was walking to the next house on the mail route. The walkway or driveway was almost entirely covered by nearly one foot of snow and a layer of ice which had accumulated beneath the snow. The postal carrier was wearing snow boots, and alleged that his right foot slid forward, his left foot slid backward, his knee hit the pavement as he fell to the ground. Upwards of thirty inches of snow had fallen in the area in a short period of time. A state of emergency was in effect for five days. The day the accident occurred was the first day the local postal service resumed delivering mail after a several-day hiatus. Consequently, the carrier was handling a heavier mailbag than usual. The homeowner’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the lower court on the grounds that the homeowner had no duty to make the premises reasonably safe for the postal employee as an invitee. The lower court assumed that the carrier was an invitee, and stated that it was not aware of any case that requires a residential landowner to clean off a driveway. The court noted as a matter of law that this was not a latent defect. If it was a latent defect, it was so obvious that the landowner didn’t clean its driveway, perfectly, from a substantial snow, and therefore no duty was owed to this particular mail carrier. The Appellate Division framed the issue on appeal as to “whether defendant breached the duty to make his premises reasonably safe for plaintiff by removing ice and snow from the walkway or driveway.” The level of a property owner’s duty of care is predicated on the status of the person on the property at the time of the injury, i.e. whether the injured party is a “trespasser,” “licensee” or “business invitee.” “Although no published decision in New Jersey ha[d] determined whether a mail carrier injured on residential premises to which he is delivering mail enjoys the status of a business invitee, the jurisdictions that have considered this issue are almost in universal accord that letter carriers are invitees.” In general, a landowner has a duty to use reasonable care to protect invitees against known or reasonably discoverable dangers. Nonetheless, whether a person owes a duty of reasonable care toward another turns on whether imposition of such a duty satisfies an abiding sense of basic fairness under all of the circumstances in light of considerations of public policy. Hence, this determination is “very fact-specific.” The Court also needed to consider the burden on homeowners if they were required to clear driveways or walkways following blizzards. Weighing all these facts in light of the considerations of public policy and fairness, the Court found that a homeowner, in these circumstances, had no duty to clear snow and ice in the driveway and/or walkway. Further, the Court perceived no difference in result as to whether the carrier fell on the walkway leading to the house or on the driveway.