Roe v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc.

A-883-97T1, 1998 WL 892743 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: December 24, 1998

DANGEROUS CONDITIONS; LIABILITY—A dangerous condition of property may be found to exist when an unreasonable risk of harm is created by the combination of a defect in the property itself and the acts of third parties.

A gate permitted access to the railroad tracks by train personnel. The gate was adjacent to a train station and was commonly used by passengers to get to the station and as an entrance to a park. The gate and fence were on property controlled by the railroad operator. The gate had been bolted permanently open to prevent students from swinging on the gate and damaging it. One day, a young girl exited the train station intending to go through the gate and into the park. After passing through the gate, she was confronted by an assailant who brutally and repeatedly raped her. Although not coached in these terms, the gravamen of the young girl’s complaint against the railroad company was that she was injured due to a dangerous condition on the railroad’s property. The railroad company moved for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint contending that, as a matter of law, it had no liability for acts that took place off its property. Relying on recent case law, the lower court held that the railroad company had no duty to protect the young girl from criminal assault on adjacent property not owned by it. The Appellate Division, however, held that the lower court erroneously applied the case law to the facts.

Generally, a public entity, such as a railroad company, is liable for injury caused by a condition of its property if a plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either an employee of the public entity performed a negligent or wrongful act or omission or in the alternative, the public entity had actual constructive notice of the dangerous condition and a sufficient time to remedy the condition. Here, the young girl’s complaint alleged not only a dangerous condition of the property controlled by the railroad, but also a dangerous condition of the property it owned, namely, the fence and gate. According to the Appellate Division, there was ample evidence for a jury to conclude that the railroad company was or should have been aware that the gate, which was permanently bolted open, led passersby into what could be considered a very dangerous park area, thus constituting a trap for passengers and other persons traversing the path. There was also evidence from which it could be inferred that the railroad company enjoyed an incidental benefit in bolting the gate open since it facilitated entrance into its station by potential passengers although, at the same time, it increased their risk of harm. Although the railroad’s argument that the term “dangerous condition” referred to physical conditions of the property itself and not to activities conducted on the property was correct, the Court held that a dangerous condition of property may be found to exist when an unreasonable risk of harm is created by the combination of a defect in the property itself and the acts of third parties. Thus, in the Court’s view, the railroad company could be held liable if it created a dangerous condition on its property that enhanced the risk of assault to persons crossing through the property even though the assault takes place on the adjoining property provided, of course, the railroad company was aware of, or should have been aware of, the enhanced risk. Unlike the case relied on by the lower court, where a plaintiff was assaulted on a vacant lot owned by a board of education, and where the property owner had provided its own tenants with a safe exit, and even took steps to prevent its tenants from entering into a dangerous vacant lot, here, the railroad company extended an invitation to the public to enter the path by permanently bolting open the gate. In the case relied upon by the lower court, the acts of the landlord in erecting its fence were designed to prohibit or frustrate the use of the shortcut. Here, the acts of the railroad company in locating the gate where it did, and later in bolting it permanently open, encouraged the use of the shortcut, creating a funnel into an extremely dangerous area. Consequently, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the lower court for further proceedings so that a jury could receive evidence as to whether the actions taken by the railroad company were palpably unreasonable in view of the relatively minor expense and inconvenience of either relocating the gate or keeping it locked and providing authorized personnel with keys.