The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in a case entitled Pareja v. Princeton Int’l Properties that commercial landowners do not have a duty to remove an accumulation of snow and ice until the conclusion of a storm, but unusual circumstances may give rise to a duty before then. There are two exceptions that could impose a duty: (1) if the owner’s conduct increases the risk, or (2) the danger is pre-existing.
In Pareja, the commercial landowner obtained summary judgment at the trial level when sued by a pedestrian who slipped on ice on a driveway apron. At the appellate level, the appellate court reversed and held there were issues of material fact as to whether the commercial owner had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and whether it had acted reasonably. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the appellate court.
The relevant facts in Pareja were Plaintiff slipped on ice at a driveway apron after having parked across the street of his workplace. He crossed the street, was walking on the driveway apron and fell. “Temperatures that morning were below freezing, and, unable to see ice on the driveway apron due to the rain, [Plaintiff] stepped directly onto it, fell, and broke his hip.” According to weather reports, between 1:30 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., a wintry mix of light rain, freezing rain and sleet fell. Between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., directly at the time of Plaintiff’s fall, “light rain and pockets of freezing rain were falling” and the temperature was about “thirty-two to thirty-three degrees.” “Snow cleared from an earlier storm was piled up along the edges of the sidewalk.”
The commercial property owner argued that the ongoing storm rule should preclude liability because it was a “commensense recognition that compelling landowners to try to prevent the accumulation of snow and ice on commercial sidewalks during the pendency of a winter weather event would be impractical and inefficient.” The New Jersey Defense Association, writing as a friend of the Court, argued that the rule adequately serves tort principles because, “while a storm is ongoing, pedestrians are on notice of dangerous conditions.” The Plaintiff and the New Jersey Association for Justice argued that the landowner has a duty and the ongoing storm rule would “encourage inaction by the landowner even in situations where such action was reasonable and feasible.”
The decision by the majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court (there was a dissent filed by two justices), detailed the history of New Jersey law for commercial owners and responsibility for sidewalks, particularly as to whether the owner was obligated to keep it clear of snow and ice. The Court stated that while cases “discuss the imposition of a duty on commercial landowners to remove snow and ice only after the cessation of the hazardous precipitation; none opine on the imposition of a duty before that point, which is the crux of this appeal.”
The Court held:
Applying our precedent to a situation where a storm is ongoing, we hold that commercial landowners do not have the absolute duty, and the impossible burden, to keep sidewalks on their property free from snow or ice during an ongoing storm. We find instead that the limiting principles established in our precedent warrant the adoption of the ongoing storm rule.
The Court held there was no unusual circumstance that would otherwise create a duty on the defendant landowner in the Pareja case.
According to the Court, given the divergent size, resources and ability of commercial landowners, the Court “decline[d] to impose a duty that cannot be adhered to by all commercial landowners.” The Court stated “absent unusual circumstances, a commercial landowner’s duty to remove snow and ice hazards arises not during the storm, but rather within a reasonable time after the storm.” According to the Court, it is unreasonable to remove an accumulation of snow and ice “while a storm is ongoing.” The Court then set forth the “unusual circumstances” that may give rise to a duty before then:
- If actions of commercial landowners increase the risk to pedestrians and invitees on their property, where the conduct “exacerbate[s] and increase[s] the risk of injury to the plaintiff.”
- Commercial landowner may be liable where there was a “pre-existing risk on the premises before the storm.” The example given was if the commercial landowner failed to remove snow from a previous storm.
According to the Court, its decision does not preclude a jury from hearing questions of fact, “such as, but not limited to, when the storm concluded or whether the accumulation of snow or ice was from a previous storm.” The New Jersey Supreme Court stated it joins the list of ten states, and particularly New Jersey neighbors, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania with similar weather that use the “ongoing storm rule.”
The dissent by Justice Albin and joined by Justice Pierre-Louis states that the majority repudiated the Court’s progressive tort law jurisprudence. The Dissent states “Never before has this Court held that a commercial landowner has no duty to exercise reasonable care to make safe its walkways until a reasonable time after rain, sleet, or snow stops falling.” The Dissent states that “[a]lthough snow removal would be impracticable during an ongoing blizzard, the same could not be said if there were an inch or two of snow and continuing light flurries, and the landowner could render the sidewalk safe with little effort or expense.”
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