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Schneider v. Dudes

A-3209-02T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

SIDEWALKS; LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY—Although factually sensitive, a storm drain is more a feature of a road than of a sidewalk; consequently storm drains are the responsibility of the municipality, not of abutting property owners.

A man rented a residential premises for one week, during which time, while attempting to enter the premises, he sustained damage to his vehicle while driving over a storm drain on the curb in front of the property. He contended, and the lower court held, that the storm drain was a hidden danger and that the damage was due to the negligence of the property owner “in not properly designating the contours of the driveway to their rental property so as to avoid a known hazard—a storm drain.” The owner contended that she had no prior knowledge of the condition; the drain was not on her property; she had no right to alter or to maintain the drain; and that any liability for damage caused by the condition should be imposed upon the municipality which was responsible for its creation, maintenance, and oversight. Furthermore, the property owner asserted that her driveway was marked by an ample amount of gavel; that the photographs presented to the lower court did not depict her driveway; and that the renter recklessly drove over the grass and did not enter the property through the access means provided.

The renter provided no proof that the drain was on the owner’s property. Therefore, the Court held that the renter failed to prove a material element of his cause of action and that there was no legal basis for imposing liability upon the owner. Since it was not proven that the drain was on the owner’s property, the owner did not owe its invitee a duty of care with respect to the condition of the storm drain in the street, which was not part of her property. A landowner has a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on its property that the owner either knows about or should have discovered. That standard of care requires that an owner reasonably inspect its property. The Supreme Court has held that commercial landowners are responsible for maintaining, in reasonably good condition, the sidewalks abutting their property and are liable for pedestrian injury. This duty to maintain sidewalks does not, however, extend to maintaining curbs that are separated from the sidewalks by a grass strip.

Whether a curb is deemed a part of a sidewalk or a street depends on the context and facts of a given case. Here, the structure in question was a storm drain, which, by definition, is more a feature of a road than a sidewalk. The primary function of a storm drain is to channel surface water from a road, and such drains are not for the benefit of the abutting property owner. That is why the Court held that storm drains are uniquely a public responsibility, requiring uniformity of design and maintenance, and why they are generally the responsibility of the municipality and not of abutting private owners.

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