New Atmosphere for Ongoing-Storm Rule (NJ)
Recently, in Pareja v. Princeton International Properties, the New Jersey Appellate Court analyzed whether the ongoing-storm rule applies in New Jersey.
One winter day at 7:50 a.m., the plaintiff, Angel Alberto Pareja (“Parejca”), was walking from his car to the defendant, Princeton International Properties’ (“Princeton”) property (“Property”) when he slipped and fell on black ice after stepping onto the Property’s driveway apron. At the time of the accident, it was not snowing, nor did Pareja observe any ice on the roadway. Nevertheless, as it was thirty-two degrees and drizzling sleet, Pareja wore slip-resistant shoes. Moreover, one day prior to the accident, the National Weather Service issued an advisory predicting an inch of snow and sleet accumulations and trace amounts of ice for the time period between 1:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. the next day, i.e., the day of the accident. In addition, the National Weather Service warned that untreated surfaces might become slippery due to the precipitation. Although Princeton traditionally retained ice and snow removal services for the Property, no such services occurred the day of the accident. As such, there had been no snow or ice pre-treatment or removal before Pareja’s fall.
Ultimately, Princeton filed a motion for summary judgment in the trial court asserting the on-going storm rule applied. In agreement, the trial court granted Princeton’s motion and held the on-going storm rule operated to preclude Princeton’s liability for the Accident. Significantly, the trial court determined that Princeton, as a commercial landowner, had no duty to keep the premises free and clear of snow and ice until after a reasonable amount of time passed following the cessation of the storm. In response, the plaintiff appealed. In pertinent part, Pareja argued the ongoing-storm rule was inapplicable.
On appeal, the Court first considered the facts and circumstances surrounding the accident. Specifically, based on the record, the Court presumed that, at the time of the Accident, pedestrians were using the public sidewalks to go in and out of the defendant’s property, as the property consisted of a combination of business offices and apartments. Moreover, the Court reasonably inferred the defendant knew about the weather advisory providing that untreated surfaces might become slippery.
The Court next analyzed the rationale of the ongoing-storm rule. In doing so, the Court concluded the ongoing-storm rule arbitrarily relieves commercial landowners from any obligation to ensure safety at their property while it is snowing. Specifically, the Court determined the ongoing-storm rule fails to deter tortious behavior and prevent accidents because it ignores situations where it is reasonable for a commercial landowner to remove or reduce foreseeable/known snow or ice hazards. Accordingly, based on the facts and circumstances of the accident, and the basis of the ongoing-storm rule, the Court held Princeton had a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the Property and the public walkway abutting the Property was reasonably safe from snow or ice on the day of the accident. The Court reasoned that a commercial landowner’s duty of removing or reducing the foreseeable harm associated with snow and ice is not fulfilled by always waiting to act until after a storm ends. By extension, the Court held a commercial landowner may be liable if, after actual or constructive notice, it fails to act reasonably and prudently under the circumstances to remove or reduce the foreseeable hazard caused by snow and ice. In reversing the trial court’s decision, however, the Court stressed that its holding does not impose absolute liability for every slip and fall on snow and ice that occurs during a continuous storm, nor does it require landowners to take unreasonable precautionary measures or immediately clear snow and ice falling during an active storm. Rather, the duty of ordinary care, which was applicable in the instant matter, requires commercial landowners to act in a reasonably prudent manner in all circumstances. Finally, the Court held the question of whether a landowner acted reasonably was a question for the jury to decide.
In sum, while this New Jersey Appellate Court decision precludes landowners from relying on the ongoing-storm rule to justify inaction, it stresses the importance of the reasonableness standard. And perhaps just as important, the reasonableness of a commercial landlord’s acts and omissions during a storm are left for a jury to decide. It will be interesting to see how the standard of reasonableness develops in this context as defense of future cases of this kind will be reliant on specific facts.
Thanks to Lauren Berenbaum for this post. Please contact Vincent Terrasi with any questions or comments.