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Ramsey v. Lindenwold Borough

A-1092-10T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

SIDEWALKS — It is well settled that an abutting homeowner is not liable for the condition of the sidewalk caused by the action of the elements or by wear and tear incident to public use, but only for the negligent construction or repair of the sidewalk by the homeowner or certain predecessors in title and there is no liability just because a homeowner is aware of a dangerous and unsafe condition on the sidewalk.

A pedestrian tripped on a sidewalk that “had been raised approximately three inches by the roots of a parkway tree in the area” of the pedestrian’s fall. He sued the abutting homeowners and the municipality, but “upon completion of discovery, summary judgment was granted” in favor of the homeowners. The pedestrian appealed, arguing that summary judgment in favor of the homeowners was inappropriate. The Appellate Division disagreed, “determining that even when all favorable inferences from the record [were] construed in [the pedestrian’s] favor, he [had] not established a basis for their liability.”

“The general rule is that a residential property owner owes no duty to keep a sidewalk abutting his property in repair. ... Although the Court has created an exception to the rule of nonliability in the case of abutting commercial landowners, ..., it [has] ‘consistently declined to extend the liability rule to abutting residential and non-profit owners.’” Basically, “[r]esidential property owners only may be held liable in tort for sidewalk injuries under limited circumstances. ... It is well settled that an abutting owner is not liable for the condition of the sidewalk caused by the action of the elements or by wear and tear incident to public use, but only for the negligent construction or repair of the sidewalk by himself or by a specified predecessor in title or for direct use or obstruction of the sidewalk by the owner in such a manner as to render it unsafe for passers by.”

While it is true that a homeowner who plants a tree may be liable for sidewalk injuries “if the roots of that tree cause the sidewalk to crack, thereby creating an unsafe condition, ... [m]unicipal sidewalk ordinances that require a residential landowner to maintain an adjacent sidewalk do not create a duty running from the property owner to a pedestrian unless the ordinance specifically states that it creates a civil liability.”

The evidence was that the homeowners never replaced nor made repairs to the sidewalk and that it was in the same condition at the time of the accident as it was when they bought their house. Further, all the homeowners ever did was to sweep fallen leaves and grass from the sidewalk and occasionally remove trash and debris. In addition, the homeowners never hired anyone to work on the tree. With that in mind, the Court rejected the pedestrian’s contention that “tort liability should attach to [the] homeowners because they ‘were aware of the dangerous and unsafe condition of the sidewalk.’” To the Court, however, this was not a sufficient basis “to confer liability on the part of the homeowners. ... Nor [did] liability arise out of the result of borough ordinance[s].”


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