Stivala v. Heritage Minerals, Inc.

A-2979-97T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: March 18, 1999

PREMISES LIABILITY—The Landowner’s Liability Act affords protection to owners of rural tracts even with minor, isolated improvements.

A jet skier was injured when he collided with another jet skier on a lake located on privately owned land. The lake was formed as a result of dredging for the purpose of mining titanium ore. The lake was used by many people for boating and swimming. For purposes of the appeal, the Court assumed that they did so with the implied consent, or at least tolerance, of the property owner. The injured jet skier sued the property owner on the theory that the owner was liable to him because of its alleged failure: (a) to provide reasonable control over the number of people using the facility, (b) to provide reasonable security measures, and (c) to otherwise act reasonably with knowledge that people were coming upon the property to use it for recreational pursuits. He also alleged that the owner was liable because it willfully and maliciously failed to guard and warn of a dangerous condition. The property owner moved for summary judgment in the lower court on the ground that it was immunized from liability by the Landowner’s Liability Act, N.J.S. 2A:42A-2, et seq. That Act reads that an owner, lessee or occupant of premises, whether or not posted, and whether or not improved and maintained in a natural condition, or used as part of a commercial enterprise, owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for sport or recreational activities, or to give warning of any hazardous condition of the land. The applicability of the Act turns on the character of the property. The lake was on a 7,000 acre tract of land. The lake itself was approximately one mile long and 100 yards wide at its widest point. Other than the abandoned mining operation, there was no suggestion that the property owner aspired to develop the property for residential use in the future. The lower court characterized the area as a “rural area ... I don’t know how it could be more rural ... this is a typical pine barrens that you see for as far as you can see.” Prior to amendment of the Act, it appeared that once a property owner improved property for commercial activity, the Act would not apply. Effective in early 1992, immunity was extended whether the property was improved or maintained in the natural condition, or was used as part of a commercial enterprise. Existing case law had held that the purpose and effect of that amendment was to reestablish immunity for rural tracts on which there had been minor, isolated improvements. The Court found that to the extent there were minor improvements on the tract in question, they were no longer used and did not deprive the owner of the immunity conferred by the Act. Even though the jet skier was correct that the Act did not serve to immunize land owners from liability for “willful or malicious failure to guard, or to warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity, there was no suggestion in the record that would tend to prove conduct of that type on the part of the property owner.”