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Luchejko v. City of Hoboken

207 N.J. 191, 23 A.3d 912 (2011)

SIDEWALKS; CONDOMINIUMS — Where a condominium association is operating for residential use and not for a commercial one, it has no duty to remove snow from its sidewalks and, under New Jersey law, courts will not balance equities in each sidewalk liability case; instead, they will follow the current bright-line rule which only imposes such a duty on owners of commercial property.

Two days after a snowstorm, a pedestrian slipped on a sheet of black ice and fell on the sidewalk, breaking his left leg below the knee. According to him, the sidewalk had not been salted. In his report, the police officer who responded to the scene of the accident confirmed that the area was icy. The sidewalk abutted a 104 unit condominium complex. Each of the 104 units was owned in fee simple by individual residents, each with an undivided interest in the common elements. The individual owners belonged to a condominium association, which, by law, was responsible for administering and managing the condominium and condominium property, including, but not limited to, conducting all activities of common interest to the unit owners.

The association’s counsel estimated that approximately ten percent of the units were rented out. There was no retail space in the building and the association did not generate a profit. The master deed required monthly payments from the condominium owners, used, in part, to maintain the sidewalks and to pay for blanket property insurance for claims arising from injuries occurring on the common facilities. The association had contracted with a snow removal company. The removal company asserted that the facilities were clear the day before the injury. The association’s doorkeepers would occasionally spread salt on the sidewalks. However, the first doorkeeper arrived after the accident that day.

The local municipal code required that private persons remove snow and ice from sidewalks abutting their property; however, no inspection was performed on the day of the injury and the municipality had no record of a complaint being filed or a citation being issued for failure to clear snow on the day of the injury. At trial, the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the association, the association’s property manager, and the municipality. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the municipality was not responsible for the sidewalk, and that the association was not a commercial entity subject to liability. The Supreme Court granted certification regarding the association and the property manager.

The Court began by noting that, although there is no common law duty to remove snow from sidewalks, there is a court imposed liability on commercial property owners for injuries caused by the negligent failure to maintain abutting sidewalks in a reasonably good condition. However, the Court had always held that residential property owners are not liable for sidewalk injuries. Therefore, central to the determination of liability, was whether the condominium’s use was residential or commercial.

In finding that the corporate condominium association was operating for a residential use and not a commercial one, the Court observed that the association was non-profit, composed only of owners, and that the owners were permitted to lease their individual units only within the boundaries of the deed and by-laws. The space contained no retail tenants. And, even though the association did have the capacity to spread the risk of loss arising out of injuries, it would only be able to do so by increasing charges to accommodate such liability as a business could.

The Court specifically rejected the injured pedestrian’s proposal that New Jersey’s courts should balance equities in each sidewalk injury case to determine liability. It uphold the doctrine of stare decisis and pointed to the clarity of the current bright-line rule as support for leaving the law unchanged. Finally, the Court found that the property manager was an agent of the association and not an independent tortfeasor. The property manager received a flat monthly fee, entered into contracts on behalf of the association, and exhibited the type of subservience that is typical of an agency relationship. Thus, the property manager owed no independent duty to the pedestrian.

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