We all know how much the variable climate affects every aspect of our lives in New Jersey.
The snow and ice storms in the state create a plethora of precarious conditions for the roadways, sidewalks, and residential and commercial properties, but New Jersey residents have learned to navigate those conditions with caution to remain safe. One area of navigation that continues to be an issue regards public walkways and sidewalks in front of and within commercial properties. A recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Pareja v. Princeton International Properties & Lowe’s Landscaping and Lawn Maintenance, LLC, overturned the Appellate Division’s ruling that commercial and private properties are required to remove precarious walking conditions in the ongoing presence of precipitation, adopting the “Ongoing Storm Rule.”
What is the “ongoing storm rule”?
The “ongoing storm rule,” according to text from New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Fernandez-Vina’s majority opinion, is the precedent by which the owner of property does not have the legal obligation to remove snow or ice from public walkways until a reasonable amount of time subsequent to the precipitation ending. Given the amount of rain, ice, and snow that falls in New Jersey, the creation of precarious walking conditions is a practically inevitable aspect of winter and transitional months. The protection of property owners under the “ongoing storm rule” is quite vast, because the rule implies that it is impractical to remove snow or ice from sidewalks until the precipitation has ceased to fall. This argument of what is practical and therefore a safety responsibility, and what is impractical, has colored the New Jersey courts for decades. The majority noted in its opinion that liability lawsuits against property owners regarding slip and fall cases due to inclement weather have been on the record in New Jersey since 1926.
The Court noted multiple other states in the Northeast that adhere by the tenets of the “Ongoing Storm Rule” to protect commercial property owners from lawsuits that occur as the result of a slip and fall during inclement weather conditions. Yet, while the NJ Supreme Court’s decision was that the “ongoing storm rule” is justifiable and can serve as umbrella protection for property owners in inclement New Jersey weather, the ruling did leave the door open for future liability lawsuits to continue.
The Grey Area
While the majority of NJ Supreme Court Justices ruled in favor of endorsing the “Ongoing Storm Rule” (the Court ruled in favor of the defendant 5-2), left quite a bit of grey area. In overturning the Appellate Division’s majority opinion that it is the property owner’s legal duty to act in a reasonably swift manner to remove precarious conditions. The Supreme Court noted that such an imposition on property owners does not take into condition their reasonable capacity to remove such dangerous obstacles, especially if they are small businesses.
The ruling upholding the “Ongoing Storm Rule” noted its trust of juries to determine whether the property manager acted in an appropriate manner and with appropriate expeditiousness. This placed a large amount of the application of the “Ongoing Storm Rule” in the hands of the deciding party on a case-by-case basis. Justice Fernandez-Vina stated clearly in its opinion that the jury could of course hear testimony that would inform whether the “Ongoing Storm Rule” would be appropriate to apply. The majority opinion was also clear that there are extenuating circumstances, which they called “unusual circumstances,” in which the breadth of the “Ongoing Storm Rule” might be reconsidered or reconfigured, and the property owner may be held responsible for accidents occurring on their public walkways. The opinion stated,
“First, commercial landowners may be liable if their actions increase the risk to pedestrians and invitees on their property, for example, by creating ‘unusual circumstances’ where the defendant’s conduct ‘exacerbate[s] and increase[s] the risk of injury to the plaintiff….Second, a commercial landowner may be liable where there was a pre-existing risk on the premises before the storm. For example, if a commercial landowner failed to remove or reduce a pre-existing risk on the property, including the duty to remove snow from a previous storm that has since concluded, he may be liable for an injury during a later ongoing storm.”
Contact our Injury Attorneys for Help with Your Claim
If you are engaged in or considering filing a slip-and-fall lawsuit due to inclement New Jersey weather, our skilled injury attorneys are on your side. Examining your case to understand if it has the necessary elements to obtain compensation for a slip and fall is crucial, and we can help.
At Cohen & Riechelson, we successfully represent clients in Hamilton Township, Trenton, Ewing, and across Mercer, Camden, Burlington, Atlantic, Somerset, and Middlesex County.