This is the time of the year when there are many hazards on both the roadways for New Jersey motorists, as well as the sidewalks for us pedestrians when we to get around. Our office has had many cases in which New Jersey residents have slipped and fallen on ice causing an injury and needed a lawyer to help them recover for lost wages, unpaid medical bills, and recover for their loss of enjoyment of life, suffering and pain.
We have seen the freezing temperatures create many hazards, and are receiving calls from many people who have suffered injuries. Common injuries are broken ankles, broken wrists and neck and back injuries to people who slip and fall. The elderly are especially vulnerable. This blog entry discusses the different rules that apply as to when a property owner has to remove snow and ice and what an owner’s responsibility is to someone who gets hurt in a slip and fall accident in New Jersey.
The law in New Jersey has different requirements as to whether someone even is required to shovel the snow and ice depending on the nature and type of property.
For instance, owner-occupiers of one, two or three family homes (regardless of whether they live in Bayonne, Short Hills, or Union City) have been held by Courts that they are not responsible if injuries occur to a person walking on the sidewalk who slip and fall and get injured due to the property owner’s failure to remove snow and ice. Now, that is different if a Town requires homeowners to remove snow and ice in front of their sidewalks. Many towns, including Bayonne, North Bergen, Union City and Jersey City require every owner, including owners of residential buildings, to remove the snow and ice. So while an owner of a single-family home may not owe his neighbor a duty to remove the snow and ice, (despite it being the neighborly thing to do) he or she can still get a summons and fine by his or her town for not doing it!
The law has an exception. If an owner occupier of a one, two or three family house does remove the snow and ice, if in clearing the sidewalk of ice and snow, he/she, through his/her negligence, adds a new element of danger or hazard, other than that caused by the natural elements, to the use of the sidewalk by a pedestrian. In other words, while an abutting owner (occupant) is under no duty to clear his sidewalk of ice and snow, he/she may become liable where he/she undertakes to clear the sidewalk and does so in a manner which creates a new element of danger which increases the natural hazard already there.
Owners of commercial properties have a much higher obligation to keep sidewalks free of dangerous conditions, especially snow and ice which has been falling and accumulating at a tremendous rate here in Northern New Jersey. The law imposes upon the owner of commercial or business property the duty to use reasonable care to see to it that the sidewalks abutting the property are reasonably safe for members of the public who are using them. In other words, the law says that the owner of commercial property must exercise reasonable care to see to it that the condition of the abutting sidewalk is reasonably safe and does not subject pedestrians to an unreasonable risk of harm.
What actions must the owner of commercial property take with regard to defects/snow/ice accumulation/dangerous conditions? The action required by the law is action which a reasonably prudent person would take or should have taken in the circumstances present to correct the defect/snow/ice accumulation/ dangerous condition, to repair it/remove it or to take other actions to minimize the danger to pedestrians (for example, to give warning of it) within a reasonable period of time after notice thereof. The test is: did the commercial property owner take the action that a reasonably prudent person who knows or should have known of the condition would have taken in that circumstance?
We have handled many of these cases. Sometimes in these cases, a good way to prove that the property owner acted unreasonably is to prove that the snow and ice were present. In these cases, I have hired experts (meteorologists) who can come to talk about what the weather was like during a given week, and how much time the owner had to remove the snow and ice, or how they would certainly have had adequate notice of it. Last thought on this topic, in the days of cell phone cameras, I have had clients take photos of the ice they fell on, while they had a broken bone in their ankle, and were waiting for the ambulance to take them to the hospital. However, it has been more common to have a client’s son or daughter go to the scene and few hours later and take the photos while mom or dad is in the hospital dealing with a broken bone.