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Vacant Two-Family Home not “Commercial” for Purposes of NJ Sidewalk Liability

May 17, 2018

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In <a href=""><em>Vega v. Muthapandi</em>,</a> plaintiff alleged to have fallen due to snow on a sidewalk abutting a two-family house.  The defendant had recently purchased that two-family house which was vacant at the time of purchase.  The defendant was not residing in the house at the time of the fall, but neither was he renting out any portion of it.  The roof had also collapsed before plaintiff’s accident rendering the house uninhabitable.
The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the house was not commercial.  In New Jersey, only “commercial” property owners are liable for failing to maintain an adjacent sidewalk.  The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the complaint.
On appeal, plaintiff argued the property was commercial because the defendant did not actually intend to move into the property or, at the very least, there was a question of fact over what his intentions were.  Specifically, plaintiff argued that if defendant intended to rent out both units, then the house was commercial.
According to the Appellate Division, defendant was not liable because the property was vacant and uninhabitable.  Therefore, the reasons behind holding commercial property owners liable for sidewalk injuries were not present.  Those reasons include the ability to carry liability insurance and the implied invitation of the public to the commercial enterprise which requires the commercial owner to provide safe ingress and egress.
The problem for defendant in this case was that he did not reside in the house at the time of the accident.  The case law relative to residential v. commercial generally requires the owner to reside in the property to be deemed residential.  The Appellate Division crafted a simple explanation for finding that defendant had no liability.  Simply put, the property was vacant and no business was being conducted there.  Accordingly, it was not “commercial.”
Thanks to Michael Noblett for his contribution to this post.


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