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Sussman v. Mermer

373 N.J. Super. 501, 862 A.2d 572 (App. Div. 2004)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY—Just because a landowner’s guest may be very familiar with a dangerous condition doesn’t mean that a landowner can’t be found liable when it fails to properly light the dangerous area.

Homeowners hosted a party. One of their guests arrived at 8 p.m. and entered through the back door. He stayed about two or three hours. When he left the party, he exited through the front door and slipped on the porch steps, injuring himself. It was dark at the time of the accident and the lights in the front of the house had not been turned on. In addition, the steps were uneven and there was no handrail. The homeowners didn’t warn the guest of this potential hazard. Although the guest had visited the home on at least three or four other occasions, he did not recall ever walking on the front porch. The guest sued the homeowners. The guest’s engineering expert inspected the area of the accident and concluded that the porch and the walkway presented a hazardous condition and violated building codes. Despite this report, the lower court granted the homeowners’ motion for summary judgment. It concluded that the guest had been to the home before and that the homeowners owed the guest no greater duty as a social guest than they owed to themselves.

The guest appealed, arguing that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to the foreseeable harm and as to whether the standard of reasonable care had been breached. The Appellate Division began by reciting that the common law in New Jersey has transitioned toward a broadening application of a general tort obligation to exercise reasonable care against foreseeable harm to others. That makes a court’s take one of considering the accident’s surrounding circumstances to determine whether it would be “fair and just” to impose on the landlord a duty of reasonable care that equates with the risk of harm. To determine whether imposing a duty is “fair and just,” a court should balance the following factors: the parties’ relationship; the nature of the attendant risk; the ability and opportunity to exercise care; and the public’s interest in the proposed solution. Applying these standards, the Appellate Division concluded that sufficient foreseeable harm was present to raise a question of fact about the homeowners’ breach of the obligation to exercise reasonable care.

Negligence may occur from the failure to light a premises to highlight a dangerous condition which would not reasonably be discovered without the light. Furthermore, a safely designed and constructed walkway can become dangerous if poorly illuminated. In this case, although the guest had previously visited the home, there was a dispute as to whether he had previously used the front porch. Therefore, there was an issue of fact as to whether the guest was aware of the condition of the steps and the walkway or whether he should have observed it through a reasonable use of the facilities. The Court found that even if the guest had used the steps before, a trier of fact could have reasonably found that the steps and the walkway presented a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm when not properly lit. Also, given the slight effort that would have satisfied reasonable care, the Court concluded that imposing such a duty on the homeowners would not have been unjust or unfair. For that reason, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s decision, dismissing the homeowners’ motion for summary judgment.

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