NJ Supreme Court Rules That Homeowners Association Can Be Held Liable for a Slip and Fall

In Qian v. Toll Brothers, the New Jersey Supreme Court was called upon to address whether a Homeowners Association can be held liable for an accident which occurs on a sidewalk in a development adjacent to a residential unit. In this matter, the plaintiff slipped and fell on a private sidewalk within a common interest community known as the Villas at Cranbury. At the time of her fall, plaintiff and her husband resided in a unit at the Villas at Cranbury (hereinafter “Villas”) which was owned by her son. While walking on one of the sidewalks within the development, plaintiff slipped and fell on ice and snow resulting in injuries. As a result of her fall, plaintiff filed suit against various defendants, including the Homeowners Association. The Homeowners Association filed a summary judgment motion relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Luchejko v. Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191 (2011), whereby the Court reaffirmed its longstanding position that residential property owners are not responsible for maintaining public sidewalks abutting their property. The trial court granted summary judgment and that decision was affirmed by the Appellate Division.

In examining this matter, the Court focused on the fact that under the Public Offering Statement for the Villas filed by the developer and the By-Laws, the Homeowners Association had the exclusive authority to maintain the common property which included walkways and driveways. In this matter, the sidewalk upon which the plaintiff fell was located in the development and abutted a private road. This differed from the facts in Luchejko as the plaintiff in that matter slipped and fell on a public sidewalk adjacent to a residential development which also abutted a public road. In evaluating the Qian case, the Court noted that “the duty of care that a landowner owes to a pedestrian walking on a sidewalk on or abutting his property will depend on whether the sidewalk is characterized as public or private.” The court continued “A critical factor in determining whether a sidewalk is public is whether the municipality has sufficient control or responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk.” Generally, the court noted, a sidewalk is classified public or private based on who owns or controls the walkway, not based on who uses it.

In the instant action, the Court found the facts distinguishable from those in Luchejko. Specifically, the plaintiff in this matter fell on a sidewalk which was owned and controlled as a common element by the Homeowners Association. Further, the sidewalk abutted a private road which was also a common element in the development controlled and owned by the Homeowners Association. As such, the Court reversed the trial court and Appellate Division decisions and held that the plaintiff’s action could go forward as there was a duty owed by the Homeowners Association to maintain the sidewalk. The Court held that “While the condominium association in Luchejko had no common law duty to take reasonable measures to clear the public sidewalk of snow and ice, here, common law premise liability jurisprudence imposes a duty on the association to keep its private sidewalks reasonably safe.”

Interestingly, the Court noted that in the By-Laws, it is provided that “the Association is not liable in any civil action brought by or on behalf of a homeowner to respond in damages as a result of bodily injury to the owner occurring on the premises of the Association except as a result of willful, wanton or grossly negligent act of commission or omission.” The Court noted that in this action, there was a limited record which noted that the plaintiff’s son was the title holder of the unit in which the plaintiff lived. Accordingly, the Court stated that it was not addressing whether plaintiff should be deemed a unit owner for purpose of the immunity provision in the Homeowner Association’s By-Laws, as this issue was not reached by the trial court or the Appellate Division. On remand, this issue is to be further explored by the Court.

The decision by the Court in this case establishes that a condominium association does have the responsibility of maintaining sidewalks which are deemed common elements in its development. Homeowners Associations will not be entitled to the immunity enjoyed by residential property owners with regard to sidewalks within their development which they control even if it abuts a residential property.

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