The Weather Outside is Frightful (NJ)

In Dixon v. HC Equities Associates, LP, the plaintiff tripped and fell on an icy sidewalk while walking to her state-issued car. Although she wore boots and walked cautiously, her feet slipped on at least one inch of snow. At her deposition, she confirmed the snow started after she arrived at work that day and continued until her fall. The plaintiff sued the defendant owner for negligence, arguing HC Equities Associates, LP breached its duty of care in failing to remove snow and ice on the facility’s sidewalk, which proximately caused her injuries.

After the completion of discovery, the defendant owner moved for summary judgment. The argument was simple: there was no breach of a duty of care to the plaintiff because its duty to act in a reasonably prudent manner to remove or reduce the hazard (snow and ice) did not start until a reasonable time after the snow stopped. After oral argument, the trial court agreed that no rational jury could find defendant was negligent because the plaintiff fell during an ongoing snowstorm. Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment as a matter of law. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the duty should be expanded.

At common law, residential and commercial property owners did not have a duty to maintain public sidewalks abutting their premises free from snow and ice. Skupienski v. Maly, 27 N.J. 240, 247 (1958). An exception to maintain abutting sidewalks was carved out for commercial landowners in Stewart v. 104 Wallace St., Inc., 87 N.J. 146, 149-50 (1981), which Mirza v. Filmore Corp., 92 N.J. 390, 395 (1983) extended to snow and ice removal. A commercial owner’s responsibility therefore arises only if, after actual or constructive notice, he has not acted in a reasonably prudent manner under the circumstances to remove or reduce the hazard.” Mirza, 92 N.J. at 395.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reaffirmed the long-upheld principle that commercial property owners are not liable for clearing snow during a snowstorm. See Bodine v. Goerke Co., 102 N.J.L. at 642-43 (E. & A. 1926) (holding that a property owner could not be liable for ailing to remove slush or ice from the entrance to a store while the storm was still ongoing). After noting it was undisputed that the snowstorm was ongoing when the plaintiff slipped and fell, the defendant was not obligated to remove snow and ice until the precipitation stopped and it had a reasonable time to remove it. Therefore, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was affirmed.

Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please email Vito A. Pinto with any questions.