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Nieves, v. Magalhaes

A-3642-03T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

SIDEWALKS; HOMEOWNERS—Unless an injured person shows that when a homeowner cleared an abutting sidewalk, the natural hazard of snow was increased by introducing an element of danger beyond that caused by natural forces, the homeowner has no liability.

A woman was injured when she fell on the sidewalk in front of a two-story, privately owned house. The accident happened at about 7:30 a.m. on the morning after a snowstorm. The house’s owner was in ill health. He was receiving Social Security Disability Benefits. He occupied a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of the house and rented the second floor to a tenant under a lease requiring the tenant to remove snow. The basement was also rented. Looking at the Anti-Eviction Act, the lower court held that the three-family home was a residential property, and not commercial property, and held there was no obligation to clear the ice and snow. On appeal, the injured woman argued that the lower court improperly applied the residential standard of the Anti-Eviction Act and erroneously interpreted applicable case law.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision, but only because the woman failed to present enough evidence to defeat the owner’s motion for summary judgment. The Court noted that there were no eyewitnesses to the fall. The second floor tenant had testified that he had shoveled the night before and that the sidewalk was clear the next morning. He stated that he took photographs after seeing the woman lying in the road later that morning because he did not want her to say that she fell on the sidewalk he had cleaned. Whether the testimony was credible or not, the Court found that a reasonably prudent person would not necessarily shovel snow by 7:30 in the morning following an overnight snowfall.

The Court also held that unless a plaintiff shows that when a homeowner cleared an abutting sidewalk, the natural hazard of snow was increased by introducing an element of danger beyond that caused by natural forces, the homeowner has no liability. Here, there was no such evidence.

The Appellate Division added that its affirmation of the lower court’s decision was not an acceptance of its conclusion that current case law and the Anti-Eviction Act compel a conclusion that every owner-occupied three family house must be deemed residential for the purpose of application of sidewalk liability. Most municipalities require owners or tenants abutting public sidewalks to remove all snow and ice within twelve hours of daylight after a snowfall or formation of ice. Furthermore, the hybrid nature of a property has been recognized in several recent cases to warrant a tilt towards landowner liability in slip and falls. Therefore, although the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant the owner summary judgment, it disagreed with the lower court’s analysis and its use of the Anti-Eviction Act in its determination.


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