With over 20 inches of snow falling in many towns in Mercer County this past weekend, the increased potential for liability in a civil lawsuit resulting from a storm-related accident surely does not top many people’s list of concerns. But, as New Jerseyans dig out their cars and trucks after the Blizzard of 2016 and begin their commute to work, it is important to be aware of the increased potential for personal injury and legal consequences surrounding a snow storm. With 300 motor vehicle accidents over the snowy weekend in New Jersey, and many more likely to follow, the Attorneys at Weir & Associates are here to offer a few tips to help keep citizens safe and free of civil liability.
Driving With Snow On Your Car
Make sure you clean the snow off of your car! A recent law passed in 2010, exposes New Jersey drivers who fail to properly clean snow off their car to a potential motor vehicle fine of up to $75.00. Even worse, the law increases fines up to $1,000 when personal injury or property damage occur. A simple traffic ticket, however, is not the only exposure New Jersey drivers have as a result of snow accumulation on their vehicles.
Every driver in New Jersey has a duty to exercise, for the safety of others, that degree of care in the operation of his or her car which a reasonably prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. The failure to remove snow and ice from your vehicle could cause your vision to be obstructed, or cause the snow to fly off and interfere with another driver’s use of the road. In either case, a driver who does not remove the snow from his vehicle, may be found negligent in a civil lawsuit brought by another driver who has suffered personal injuries as a result of an accident.
In other words, don’t be like this guy:
Failure to Obey Traffic Markings
Unfortunately, after a severe event such as Winter Storm Jonas, many roads will not be cleared immediately, leaving roads narrower and traffic lines partially obstructed. In civil suits, traffic lines and other road markings can help identify who was at fault for causing a motor vehicle accident. For example, if Car A merges into Car B’s lane, and in the process strikes Car B, then generally the law in New Jersey holds Car A at fault on a theory of negligence in failing to properly merge.
When road markings are obscured, it is difficult for driver’s to see where lanes begin and end, which can not only cause an accident, but also make it unclear as to who was at fault. New Jersey law expects that people will exercise foresight to anticipate potential dangers in driving on a snow-covered road, therefore the fact that road markings were invisible due to snow may not be a defense to liability. The attorneys at Weir & Associates suggest New Jersey residents drive with extra caution and use reasonable care in the control and operation of their vehicles during, and after, winter storms. This may mean driving slower than the speed limit on a snow-covered road.
Slip and Falls on Snow and Ice
The attorneys at Weir & Associates are also experts in civil lawsuits involving personal injuries resulting from slip and falls on snow and ice. In these cases, a major issue in the liability analysis is the concept of notice. The general duty of an owner of real property in New Jersey to a social guest is that the owner must warn a guest of any dangerous conditions of which the owner had actual knowledge, and of which the guest is unaware.
For example, a person who slips and falls on ice on the patio of someone’s house in July is going to have a tough time proving that the owner of the property should have known there was ice creating a dangerous condition on the premises. A winter storm, like the one that blitzed the Garden State this past weekend, would change the civil-liability analysis quite a bit. In that situation, it is harder for an owner to claim they were unaware of the icy conditions on their property. As such, the attorneys at Weir & Associates suggest that any New Jersey resident entertaining guests at their home should properly remove and salt all snow and ice on their property to prevent any serious personal injuries. In addition, warning guests of a particular patch of ice you are aware of, may help to prevent not only your guest from getting injured, but also civil liability in a lawsuit.
These are but a small number of situations in which winter storms can create civil liability for individuals and businesses. The trial attorneys at Weir & Associates have experience helping New Jersey Residents through difficult legal situations on a daily basis. If you have been injured or are being sued, call our offices to speak with an experienced attorney.
Update: On June 10, 2021 the New Jersey Supreme Court rendered an opinion reversing the Appellate Division in Pareja v. Princeton International Properties. The Court held that the ongoing-storm rule is the standard for commercial landowners. The Court found that the “rule reflects the commonsense recognition that compelling landowners to try to prevent the accumulation of snow and ice on commercial sidewalks during the pendency of a winter weather event would be impractical and inefficient.” The opinion provides that commercial landowners have no duty to remove snow and ice until a reasonable time after the precipitation has stopped. They carved out two narrow exceptions: (1) a situation in which the landowners conduct increases the risk of injury; and (2) a situation in which the landowner failed to remove a pre-existing hazard, including snow from a previous storm.
New Jersey Commercial Property Owners Can No Longer Seek Shelter for Snow and Ice Injury Liability Under the Ongoing-Storm Rule
Residents of New Jersey are no strangers to severe winter weather and the hazards of ice and snow both on our roadways and walkways. Unfortunately, slip and fall injuries due to ice and snow accumulations are frequently caused by the negligence of a property owner in failing to remove or reduce the hazardous condition.
Imagine the following scenario to illustrate the ongoing-storm rule:
It is a cold January day, with snow and sleet falling intermittently throughout the day since the early morning hours. At 8 p.m. it is still snowing lightly, with snow accumulation of 6-8 inches on the ground. A family member is sick with a severe cold, and you volunteer to drive to the local supermarket to pick up a cold remedy. Upon arrival, you note that the supermarket parking lot and walkways appear not to have been plowed or shoveled. As you step onto the walkway near the store entry, you slip and fall due to a patch of ice hidden beneath the snow covering. As a result of the fall, your hip is severely fractured and requires surgical repair, leaving you with ongoing pain and disability.
Question: Does the owner and operator of the supermarket have liability to you, the injured party, for failing to take action to reduce the hazard of the accumulated ice and snow condition while the storm was still in progress and light snow still falling?
Until now, many similarly situated accident victims in New Jersey were denied compensation for their injuries by the application of the legal theory known as the “Ongoing-Storm Rule”. However, a recent New Jersey appellate court ruling in the case of Pareja v. Princeton International Properties, et al., rejected the ongoing-storm defense asserted by defendants, ruling that the defense does not apply in New Jersey.
The ongoing-storm rule stood for the proposition that a commercial property owner owed no duty to the public to protect persons from slips and falls during an ongoing winter storm event. The ongoing-storm rule relieved commercial property owners from the obligation to try to render their property safe while sleet, snow or ice is falling under the theory that to do so would always be inexpedient and impractical.
The Pareja Case
Plaintiff Pareja’s accident occurred during a period of ongoing storms. The plaintiff fell when precipitation consisting of light snow and drizzle or freezing rain had continued over the course of the prior day and night. The plaintiff was a pedestrian and slipped and fell on black ice that accumulated on the commercial landowner’s driveway apron which abutted a public sidewalk. Plaintiff’s fall occurred while precipitation was still falling. No snow or ice pre-treatment applications or snow and ice removal operations had been performed on the property by the owner prior to the commencement of, or duration of the storm.
From testimony, the defendant commercial property owner knew from winter storm warnings of the impending storm and anticipated icing conditions. Further, the owner was aware of the slippery conditions caused by the ongoing storm. Despite this knowledge, no efforts were made to remediate the issue of ice accumulation on the public sidewalk and sloped driveway apron of the commercial property. No snow or ice pre-treatment, or removal was done on the property prior to plaintiff’s fall.
The defendant commercial property owner argued that they were not responsible for the plaintiff’s accident and injuries as the plaintiff fell during an ongoing storm, and thus the ongoing-storm rule protected them from liability.
The Appellate Court Decision in the Pareja Case
The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court decision in the case of Pareja v. Princeton International Properties (decided April 9, 2020) lays to rest the long-standing belief in the New Jersey courts that the so-called “ongoing-storm rule” protects commercial property owners from liability for slip-and-fall claims that arise from falls occurring as a result of winter storm events while the storm is in progress.
In rejecting the ongoing-storm rule, the Appellate Division stated that the bright line test of the storm being in progress, was contrary to sound tort principles of promoting deterrence because it discouraged property owners from “act[ing] in a reasonably prudent manner under the circumstances to remove or reduce the foreseeable hazard”.
The Court explained that “a commercial landowner has a duty to take reasonable steps to render a public walkway abutting its property, covered by snow or ice, reasonably safe, even when precipitation is falling.” Such liability will arise only if the landowner fails to act in a reasonably prudent manner to remove or reduce the hazard after it has actual or constructive notice.
While there is no absolute liability for every slip and fall injury, the court stated, “the duty of ordinary care requires nothing more than expecting a commercial landowner to act in a reasonably prudent manner under all of the circumstances.”
Thus, whether a commercial property owner has acted reasonably under all the circumstances is a question for the jury. It is the task of a jury to decide if the property owner acted reasonably whenever there is a failure to take precautionary measures and the owner waits for the storm to end before making the premises reasonably safe.
Trial attorney David E. Rehe, Esq. of Weir Attorneys represented the injured plaintiff in the Pareja case and handled the winning appeal. He may be reached at (609) 594-4000 or email at email@example.com
This case represents just one situation in which a winter storm can create civil liability for individuals or businesses in matters involving personal injury.
For more information on this ruling, or on other premises liability matters, please contact our office. The trial attorneys at Weir Attorneys have extensive experience helping New Jersey Residents through difficult legal situations. If you have been injured or are being sued, call our offices to speak with an experienced trial attorney.