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Non-Commercial Vacant Landowners Owe No Duty to Maintain Abutting Sidewalks (NJ)

June 7, 2018

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Plaintiff, in <span style="text-decoration: underline;"><a href="http://blog.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Ellis-v.-Hilton-Methodist-Church.pdf">Ellis v. Hilton Methodist Church</a></span>, rolled the dice of life and sued the owner of a vacant church – the Hilton United Methodist Church and the Board of Trustees of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church – for damages arising from injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell on a sidewalk. He argued a recent decision imposing liability to maintain abutting sidewalks on the owner of a vacant, boarded-up commercial property should apply to vacant churches. His argument, however, was not infallible.
Generally, a landowner in New Jersey does not owe a duty of care to a pedestrian injured as a result of the condition of the sidewalk abutting the landowner’s property. <u>Dupree v. City of Clifton</u>, 351 N.J.Super. 237, 241 (App.Div. 2002). An exception applies to commercial landowners, who are responsible for maintaining, “in reasonably good condition,” the sidewalks abutting their property. <u>Stewart v. 104 Wallace Street</u>, 87 N.J. 146, 157 (1981). The Court expanded the commercial landowner exception in <u>Gray v. Caldwell Wood Products, Inc.</u>, 425 N.J.Super. 496 (App.Div. 2012), which held that commercial landowners retain their duty to maintain abutting sidewalks, even if – as was the case in <u>Gray</u> – the commercial building was vacant and boarded-up.
The plaintiff, in <u>Ellis</u>, sought to expand this exception. The argument was simple: a commercial landowner has a duty in New Jersey to maintain abutting sidewalks; the Court recently extended this duty to maintain abutting sidewalks beyond the life of a commercial property; and since landowners now owe pedestrians a duty to maintain abutting sidewalks of vacant and boarded-up commercial properties, public policy warrants an extension to the owners of a vacant and boarded-up churches. The Court not only disagreed, but also affirmed the duties of commercial property owners do not extend to noncommercial and residential landowners.
The Court reaffirmed that the church at issue in this case is not a commercial building. Nothing in the record, the Court noted, indicated it was ever operated for commercial purposes. (9). Simply maintaining liability insurance, like a commercial property, does not convert the church to being one. Additionally, the mere fact that a vacant building could have been used to generate income, and therefore be classified as a commercial property, is irrelevant. <em>Id</em>. In rejecting that argument, the Court noted that liability would then attach to any vacant or abandoned noncommercial (or residential) building.
In rejecting the plaintiff’s attempt to expand the <u>Gray</u> sidewalk liability exception, the Court made it clear: “[w]e reject any reading of Gray that imposes liability on owners of vacant residential or noncommercial properties that have not been put to any commercial use.” (2). Noncommercial property owners of vacant buildings, and the Board of Trustees of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, can now breathe a little easier.
Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please write to <a href="mailto:%20vpinto@wcmlaw.com">Tony Pinto</a> for more information.

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