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Slip and fall claim tests New Jersey premises liability laws

Justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court are weighing arguments about an accident that injured a Plainsboro woman. The sidewalks in the woman's private housing community were slick with ice as she made her way to a grocery store in December 2008. The plaintiff alleged the homeowners' association and companies hired to maintain the sidewalks were responsible for her slip-and-fall injuries.

A maintenance business was contracted by the association's property management company to keep the development's walkways free of snow and ice. The agreement stated accumulations of two or more inches of snow or ice would be cleared automatically. Automatic removal services were not contracted for accumulations of less than that amount.

Lower courts ruled the defendants were not liable for the accident based on a 2011 decision by the state's high court. In its ruling, the state Supreme Court excluded residential property from an older doctrine making commercial property owners liable for accidents on poorly-maintained, adjacent public sidewalks.

The sidewalk where the accident took place was privately owned. However, the defendants maintained the public was free to access the sidewalk inside the ungated housing development. An appellate court negated the plaintiff's assertion the defendants violated a local ordinance by not having the ice cleared.

The complaint stated the woman was reliant on the homeowners' association's promise to keep the sidewalks and other common areas in the development free of snow and ice. The association also purchased liability insurance to cover property-related injuries. The central issue is whether the court will allow a ruling for public walkways to apply to private sidewalks.

When an injury occurs on someone else's property, civil courts decide whether negligence caused the accident and determine the party or parties accountable for a plaintiff's losses. As premises liability attorneys can explain, responsibility isn't always clear-cut. A property owner is not faulted automatically for injuries suffered by visitors.

Source: New Jersey Law Journal, "Case Tests Homeowners' Associations' Icy Sidewalk Liability," Michael Booth, March. 17, 2015

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