Recent New Jersey ruling sheds light on a landlord's responsibility to clear sidewalks of snow
It is long standing law in New Jersey that a commercial landowner is responsible for maintaining abutting public sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition. Stewart v. 104 Wallace St., Inc. 87 N.J. 146 (1981). The recent unpublished Appellate Division decision in Quiles v. Hector, A-0023-16T1 (App. Div. Jan. 19, 2018) sheds light on when a commercial landowner’s duty to clean an abutting sidewalk begins in the event of a snowstorm.
In Quiles, the Plaintiff slipped and fell while she was on the premises of Defendant’s apartment complex in North Bergen, New Jersey. This complex consists of six buildings with dozens of residential units and internal streets and sidewalks. The Defendant property owner testified that he is responsible for snow removal at the complex and that it was his procedure to clean the internal streets and sidewalks once it stops snowing. On the day in question, the Plaintiff left work at 5:30 p.m. and went to a pizzeria. At approximately 7:30 p.m., the Plaintiff left the pizzeria and planned to drop off a pizza to a friend who lives in Defendant’s apartment complex. Plaintiff testified that it was snowing when she left work and that it was still snowing when she left the pizzeria. After walking for three to four minutes within Defendant’s complex, Plaintiff slipped on the sidewalk and fell. Although Plaintiff asserted that it had stopped snowing prior to her fall, her friend to whom she was delivering the pizza recalled that it was still snowing at the time. Furthermore, a weather report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicated that the precipitation began at 2:00 p.m. and lasted until 5:00 a.m. the following morning.
In granting the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court found that a property owner is permitted a reasonable period of time after a snowstorm to clear the snow from areas used by the public. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court relied, in part, on an ordinance enacted by North Bergen which states that property owners have twelve daylight hours following a snowstorm to clear the snow from a public sidewalk. The trial court concluded that the storm was ongoing when Plaintiff fell and granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant as a result. In so holding, the trial court ruled that Defendant did not have a duty to remove the snow from the sidewalk while it was still snowing.
The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s ruling and held: “We conclude that defendant had a duty to make the private walkways within his housing complex reasonably safe for known or expected visitors. However, that duty is to act reasonably under the circumstances, and defendant cannot be liable for failing to remove the accumulated snow or ice until a reasonable time after the storm ends.” Id. at 9. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s reliance on the twelve hour window prescribed in the municipal ordinance as an indication of what would be a reasonable time to act. Based on the foregoing, the Appellate Division affirmed the entry of summary judgment and concluded that the Defendant property owner could not be held liable for a fall down that occurred while the snow storm was still in progress.
When investigating a premises liability claim involving snow/ice, the timeline of precipitation is critical. Information regarding the timing of a storm can be obtained in many ways. First and foremost, statements from eyewitnesses will be very persuasive. These statements could be found in police reports, EMT reports, emergency room records or interviews of the pertinent individuals taken shortly after the incident. Additionally, weather data can be obtained online. In Quiles, the Defendant obtained an online weather report which set forth the weather in Newark, NJ on the date of loss which is approximately 11 miles from the location of the fall. The information contained in that weather report was deemed sufficient, in large part because it was corroborated by witness testimony, however, retaining a meteorological expert who will testify at trial is recommended if the timing of the storm is in dispute.
Additionally, it is imperative to determine whether the municipality where the incident occurred has an ordinance pertaining to snow removal. As evidenced by the decisions rendered by both the trial court and the Appellate Division, a great deal of reliance was placed on the twelve hour window set forth in the North Bergen ordinance.