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Shaknovich v. Fishman

A-1017-04T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY; NEGLIGENCE —The task before a court in assessing a landowner’s liability is now to consider all of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether it is fair and just to impose on the landowner a duty of reasonable care commensurate with the risk of harm.

A woman visited her daughter and son-in-law to bring flowers to her daughter for her birthday. As she “was descending the basement stairs to retrieve a vase, she tripped and fell mid-way down, ... injuring herself.” The woman had used the stairway before without incident and, at the time of the accident, the light was turned on. After her fall, she was in no condition to observe what caused her to trip. “Sometime later, however, she examined the stairs, and when she ran her hand along the middle steps where she had fallen, [she] observed that the vinyl runner was loose.” Her expert opined that the runner was not properly attached and this created a tripping hazard. Despite the evidence, the lower court found in favor of the homeowner on the basis that the woman was “no more than a social guest. And, as such, the [homeowner’s] only duty was to – or basic duty was to warn of known dangers and hazards.” On appeal, the Court pointed out that the lower court was correct as to the common law on premises liability in New Jersey, but also pointed out that such law “has undergone transition toward ‘a broadening application of a general tort obligation to exercise reasonable care against foreseeable harm to others.’” According to the Court, “the task now is to consider ‘all of the surrounding circumstances’ to determine whether it is ‘fair and just’ to impose upon the landowner a duty of reasonable care commensurate with the risk of harm.” With that being the standard, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence presented “to raise a jury question regarding [the homeowner’s] breach of duty owed [the injured woman].” It believed, that “[a]t the very least, [the homeowners] owed [the injured woman] the duty to warn of dangerous conditions of which [the homeowners] were, or should have been, aware and of which [the woman] was unaware.” It felt that there was no dispute that despite the woman’s “prior occasional use of the stairway, [she] was unaware of the loose vinyl runner.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the homeowners and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

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