New Jersey distinguishes between commercial and residential property to determine the responsibility of an owner to those using public sidewalks. A purely residential property owner owes no duty to maintain a sidewalk unless a repair is negligently made. On the other hand, a commercial property owner has a duty to take reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm. The gray area is where a residential property is not owner occupied but is used for commercial purposes.
The Appellate Division recently considered the proof required to establish that a property owner of a three family home was liable for a slip and fall on an uneven sidewalk. In Perez v. Fernandez, the three family home was not owner occupied but the owner’s parents lived in one unit and managed the other two. In a footnote, the court made an assumption that the property was commercial in nature because it was not owner occupied despite the family member’s occupancy. Once this assumption was made, the court evaluated the duty under the commercial property standard.
Despite this classification, the court seemed to scrutinize plaintiff’s proofs giving the defense the benefit of the doubt. In part this may be due to the plaintiffs’ development of the case. The plaintiff, Frictiana Perez fell on the sidewalk near ongoing construction in the street. Initially they took an alternative approach and had two engineering reports prepared. One pointed to the construction activities that may have caused damage to the sidewalk, and the other faulted the abutting property owner.
During discovery, the plaintiffs served the liability expert report identifying the construction contractors the responsible party. After the close of discovery, plaintiff’s counsel said the report had been served by mistake. Plaintiff then served the second expert report concluding that the displaced sidewalk caused plaintiff’s fall and placed the liability on the defendant homeowner for negligent maintenance. The Court barred the late served report, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and then denied plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration.
In affirming the trial court’s dismissal in favor of the defendants, the Court explained: “[P]laintiffs needed to show that defendants had breached their duty owed to those walking on the sidewalk abutting their property.” It is well established that “commercial property owners would be liable for injuries on the sidewalks abutting their property that are caused by their negligent failure to maintain the sidewalk in reasonably good condition.” In its analysis, the Court held that the Fernandez family’s duty was to prevent “foreseeable harm.” In other words, plaintiffs must prove that the defendants had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that caused the injury, in this case, the displaced sidewalk.
Without an expert report, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs could not meet this burden. The defendants denied any awareness of the raised sidewalk slab. The Court found no evidence that the defendants should have known about the problem with the sidewalk. “To make such a showing, plaintiffs needed evidence of how the slab was damaged and how long the slab was damaged. In the absence of expert testimony, there was no competent evidence to show defendants were negligent.”
The appellate court held that the trial court properly granted summary judgment to the defendants. Specifically, plaintiffs could not establish negligence as a matter of law without an expert to testify how and when the sidewalk had been damaged. In a questionable liability case that lacks proof of the defendants’ actual notice of a hazardous or defective condition, the lack of an expert report confirming the defendants’ constructive notice of the condition may be the hook a motion judge needs to dismiss a complaint.
Thanks to Ann Marie Murzin for her contribution.
For more information, contact Denise Fontana Ricci at firstname.lastname@example.org.