The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that condominiums and “55 and over” homeowner associations, who fail to properly maintain sidewalks under their ownership, can be held liable for slip and fall injuries.  Prior to this recent ruling in Qian v. Toll Brothers, Inc., homeowner associations relied on New Jersey law conferring immunity as to public sidewalks bordering their property.

In the personal injury case, the plaintiff was a resident of an “over 55” community who slipped and fell on ice while walking on a sidewalk within her community.    The sidewalks were technically owned by the community’s homeowners association, which made the homeowners association responsible for the maintenance and care of them.  The homeowner’s association had contracted with a private landscape company for snow removal, but did not direct them on the day of the accident to remove snow and ice from their sidewalks.  While walking home from the grocery store, an accumulation of ice caused the victim to slip and fall on her back, causing injury to her wrist and shoulder.

The plaintiff brought a personal injury lawsuit.  The trial court dismissed the case, and the Appellate Division affirmed, because although commercial landowners such as shopping malls have a duty to clear public sidewalks abutting their properties of snow and ice, there is no corresponding duty in New Jersey of residential owners of public sidewalks.  The trial and appellate courts relied on the holding in Luchejko v. Hoboken, which had held that a condominium complex, through its association and management company, did not have a duty to clear a public sidewalk of snow or ice and was immune from a lawsuit filed by a pedestrian who slipped and broke his leg. 

The Supreme Court in this instance, however, reversed the decision of the lower courts, reasoning that the sidewalk in question was private.  The court held that residential public sidewalk immunity is not applicable in the case of a sidewalk privately owned by a public-interest community.  The key to distinguish between a public and private sidewalk is not who uses it, but rather who owns or controls the sidewalk.  The homeowners association of the “over-55” community had bylaws, as well as a statutory duty, which stated they had to manage and maintain common areas in the community.  Although the sidewalk may be used by public pedestrians, the association’s ownership and control of it meant they could not rely on public-sidewalk immunity.  Therefore, the plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit was able to move forward.  This case ultimately means that condominium and “over 55” homeowners associations may be liable for injuries resulting from poorly maintained sidewalks that they own or control.

Determining fault in New Jersey slip and fall cases involving homeowners associations, commercial properties, and the distinction between public and private sidewalks can be a complex analysis.  The determination of liability requires analysis of ownership interests, delegation of duties and New Jersey statutory and case law. The trial attorneys at Weir & Associates, LLC in Pennington, NJ have decades of experience dealing with liability in slip and fall accidents in Mercer, Burlington, Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties.