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Monday, September 7, 2015

Condo Assoc and management co may be liable for fall down CUIYUN QIAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. TOLL BROTHERS INC.

Condo Assoc and management co may be liable for fall down 
CUIYUN QIAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
TOLL BROTHERS INC., INTEGRA MANAGEMENT CORP.,
THE VILLAS AT CRANBURY BROOK HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, Defendants-Respondents, and
LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE SERVICES, Defendant.
A-95
073982
SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

August 12, 2015

ALBIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court considers whether sidewalk immunity applied in Luchejko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191 (2011) (Luchejko), in the context of injuries that occurred on a public sidewalk adjoining a residential condominium community, is applicable to claims for personal injuries sustained on a private sidewalk owned and controlled by a homeowners association of a common-interest community.
Plaintiff and her husband resided in a home at the Villas at Cranbury Brook (Villas), a common- interest community, in the Township of Plainsboro. The homeowners at the Villas take title only to their dwelling units; all other areas, including the sidewalks and walkways, are common area property owned by the homeowners association and the recreation association. Homeowners are charged monthly assessments for the maintenance of the common areas, which pay for services such as snow and ice removal from the sidewalks. Although the Villas is not a gated community, the general public does not have an easement to use the sidewalks. Under the community's certificate of incorporation and by-laws, the homeowners association is responsible for the maintenance of the community's common areas.
On December 19, 2008, a snowstorm with freezing rain led to the accumulation of approximately one-and-a-half inches of ice on the
sidewalks and streets of the Villas. At the request of the homeowners association, a landscape contractor salted the roadways, but the association did not request that the common sidewalks and walkways also be cleared. Two days later, on December 21, 2008, additional freezing rain accumulated. The landscape contractor did not apply any salt to the roadways or sidewalks that day. That afternoon, plaintiff and her husband walked through the Villas to a food market; on their way back to their home, plaintiff slipped and fell on ice on a common-area sidewalk within the community, injuring her wrist and shoulder.
Plaintiff sued the developer of the community, the management company, the homeowners association, and the landscape contractor to recover for the personal injuries that she sustained. The trial court granted summary judgment to the homeowners association and the management company, and dismissed plaintiff's complaint. The trial court concluded that the private sidewalks in the community were the functional equivalent of the public sidewalk for which the Court conferred immunity in Luchejko. The Appellate Division affirmed that determination in an unpublished decision.
The Court granted plaintiff's petition for certification. 217 N.J. 623 (2014).
HELD: The immunity of a property owner from claims for injuries on a public sidewalk addressed in Luchejko does not apply to bar a claim for personal injuries against the homeowners association and management company of the common-interest community because the sidewalk on which plaintiff fell on ice constitutes a private sidewalk, as it is part of the common area owned by the homeowners association, and the association's by-laws and statutory obligations require the association to 
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manage and maintain the community's common areas.
1. In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, the court applies the same standards under Rule 4:46-2(c) that govern the trial court. A court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. Summary judgment should not be granted unless the record reveals no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law. In reviewing the law, the court need not defer to the interpretative conclusions of the trial court or the Appellate Division. (pp. 13-14)
2. At common law, both commercial and residential property owners were under no duty to keep the public sidewalk adjoining their premises free of snow and ice, and therefore were not liable for the condition of the sidewalk caused by the elements. An exception was then created for commercial property, imposing a duty on the owner to take reasonable measures to maintain an adjoining public sidewalk for the safety of pedestrians, including the removal of snow or ice, as appropriate, and rendering the property owner liable for injuries caused by negligent failure to maintain the sidewalk in reasonably good condition. Residential property owners have no similar common law duty with respect to a public sidewalk. (pp. 14-15)
3. The duty of care that a landowner owes to a pedestrian on a sidewalk on or abutting his property depends on whether the sidewalk is characterized as a public or private sidewalk. Generally, whether a sidewalk is classified as public or private depends on who owns or controls the walkway, rather than who uses it. A critical factor in determining whether a sidewalk is public is whether the municipality has sufficient control over or responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk. (pp. 17-18)
4. An owner of private property has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect those entering the property from dangerous conditions on the property. A duty therefore exists to make private walkways on the property reasonably safe, and, to the extent reasonable, to clear snow and ice that presents a danger to known or expected visitors. (pp. 17-18)
5. Under the standards stated above and the specific facts of this matter, the walkway in the Villas on which plaintiff fell is a private, rather than a public, sidewalk. The certificate of incorporation and the
association's by-laws classify the sidewalks and interior roadways as common property. Under the Condominium Act, a homeowners association is responsible for maintaining the common elements of the community, and obtaining insurance for liability resulting from accidents within the common areas. Nothing in the record suggests that the municipality has control of, or responsibility for, the community's interior sidewalks. Additionally, the limited immunity that the Legislature conferred on homeowners associations under N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-13, protecting against liability from certain lawsuits by unit owners, confirms the application of premises liability to a community's common elements because, without the potential for liability, there would be no need for the grant of immunity. There is no bar in the immunity provision to a negligence action against the association by a non-unit owner injured on the community's common areas. (pp. 18-21)
6. The decision in Luchejko is not controlling here. Luchejko reaffirmed the distinction between commercial and residential property owners where injuries occur on a public sidewalk, and did not address a private sidewalk that is part of the common area of the community. There are also stark factual differences between Luchejko and this case. In contrast to this case, the public sidewalk addressed in Luchejko was not part of the common area of the condominium. Additionally, a public easement existed over the sidewalk in Luchejko; there is no public easement here. The condominium's by-laws and other documents did not impose any duty upon the association in Luchejko to maintain and clear the public sidewalk of snow and ice, or to obtain liability insurance covering the sidewalk; in contrast, such duties exist here. The Villas homeowners association collected maintenance fees from the homeowners to ensure that all common property, including the sidewalk on which plaintiff was injured, would be reasonably safe. No such fees were collected to maintain the public sidewalk in Luchejko. (pp. 22-24)
7. The Court does not address whether plaintiff should be deemed a unit owner for purposes of the immunity provision in the association's by-laws precluding liability for negligence by unit owners (noting that plaintiff's son is listed as owner in the deed, but plaintiff and her husband reside in the unit), because this issue was not addressed by the trial court or the Appellate Division, and must be explored further on remand. (p. 24)
The judgment of the Appellate Division, which
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Qian v. Toll Bros. Inc. (N.J., 2015)
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affirmed the grant of summary judgment by the trial court, is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, and SOLOMON; and JUDGE CUFF (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA did not participate.
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Nicholas J. Leonardis argued the cause for appellant (Stathis & Leonardis, attorneys; Mr. Leonardis and Randi S. Greenberg, on the briefs).
Matthew J. Tharney argued the cause for respondents (McCarter & English, attorneys; Mr. Tharney, Natalie S. Watson, and Ryan A. Richman, on the briefs).
Ronald B. Grayzel argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association of Justice (Levinson Axelrod, attorneys).
JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.
New Jersey's common law imposes a duty on commercial landowners to clear public sidewalks abutting their properties of snow and ice for the safe travel of pedestrians. No corresponding duty is imposed on residential landowners. We adhered to that distinction between commercial and residential landowners in Luchejko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191, 211 (2011), a case involving a pedestrian who slipped on ice on a public sidewalk abutting a residential condominium building. We held that the condominium association and management company were immune from suit for allegedly failing to clear ice from the public sidewalk. Id. at 195, 211.
In this personal-injury case, a resident fell on ice on a private sidewalk within a common-interest community. We must determine whether the community's homeowners association and its management company had the duty to clear snow and ice from the community's private sidewalks. Under the community's certificate of incorporation and by- laws -- as well as by statute -- the homeowners association is responsible for the maintenance of the common elements, which include the sidewalks. Both the trial court and the Appellate Division concluded that the private sidewalks in this case were the
functional equivalent of the public sidewalk on which we conferred immunity in Luchejko. The trial court granted summary judgment to the homeowners association and management company and dismissed plaintiff's complaint, and the Appellate Division affirmed.
We now reverse. Residential public-sidewalk immunity does not apply in the case of a sidewalk privately owned by a common-interest community. Who owns or controls the sidewalk, not who uses it, is the key distinguishing point between a public and private sidewalk. Here, the by-laws of the homeowners association spell out the association's duty to manage and maintain the community's common areas, including sidewalks. This association also has a statutory obligation to manage the common elements of which the sidewalks are a part. See N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(a). Last, the limited immunity given to "a qualified common interest community" under N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-13 is a legislative acknowledgement that common-law tort liability extends to the private areas of such a community.