Toogood v. St. Andrews At Valley Brook Condominium Association

313 N.J. Super. 418, 712 A.2d 1262 (App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: July 1, 1998

PERSONAL INJURY; LIABILITY—To the extent that the Landowner’s Liability Act affords protection to property owners, its protection is limited to generally rural areas and does not extend to suburban areas.

A woman fell while rollerblading on a road within a residential condominium development. The condominium association, in moving for summary judgment, argued that it was immunized from liability by the Landowners’ Liability Act. In granting summary judgment, the lower court opined that prior to its 1991 amendment, the Act had been applied to rural settings; however, in 1991 the Act was amended to include the phrase “whether or not improved or maintained in a natural condition” as a modifier to the word “premises.” In the lower court’s view, the use of the word “improved” to describe property covered by the Act now applied to all improved property, wherever located. It opined that the purpose of the 1991 amendments was “to avoid imposing any obligation or liability upon improved property owners as well as properties that were, as they were defined under the prior act, limited to areas that were generally rural areas.”

The Appellate Division reversed. It noted that the term “premises” was not defined in the Act. Instead, in a prior case, Boileau v. De Cecco, 125 N.J. Super. 263 (App. Div. 1973), the Court concluded that removing the language “agricultural lands and woodlands” and adding the word “premises” did not enlarge the protected class of landowners to suburban landowners. This interpretation was endorsed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Harrison v. Middlesex Water Co., 80 N.J. 391, 403 (1979), stating the word “premises” was intended to bring within the ambit of the Act’s protection only “those owners of rural and semi-rural tracts of land on whose property the enumerated activities occurred.” The Appellate Division also believed that the 1991 amendments were probably in direct response to the 1990 decision of Whitney v. Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co., 240 N.J. Super. 420 (App. Div.1990) where the plaintiff’s decedent was killed while driving an all-terrain vehicle along a former railroad right of way. There, a utility company had converted a railroad right of way to a roadway and maintained the roadway to gain access to power lines. Focusing on the improved nature of the roadbed and its use in conjunction with a commercial activity, the utility was found not to be immunized by the Act. Based on the legislative history and prior case law, the Appellate Division found the lower court’s interpretation of the Act to be too broad.