In a recent case called Qian v. Toll Brothers, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that condominium homeowners' associations are responsible for the upkeep of all sidewalks on and adjacent to their property. Before this decision, homeowners' associations were immune from liability for the upkeep of public sidewalks adjacent to their property (unless required by city or town ordinance). If, for example, a condominium had a public sidewalk just outside of its premises, the association would not be held responsible if ice accumulated and a passerby was injured. On the other hand, commercial property owners did not enjoy such immunity. If the public sidewalk was located just beside a store, the owner would have the responsibility to keep it and other sidewalks around its property safe. Now community associations bear the same responsibilities.
In Qian, the person suing was injured after traveling down an icy road bordering a condominium community restricted to those aged 55 or older. The homeowners' association had a contract with a private landscaping company that would automatically clean all sidewalks if the accumulation of ice or snow rose up to a specific height. On the day of the injury, the accumulation exceeded that height, but the homeowners' association hadn't paid an additional cost for the company to provide extra services. The trial court and the appeals court said that prior law applied, and ruled that the homeowners' association was protected from liability since the road was not within its property. This summer, the Supreme Court reversed those decisions.
This additional responsibility was not created from some brand new legal theory, but came from the legislative intent behind state statute. N.J.S.A 46:8B-14(a), otherwise known as the Condominium Act, holds homeowners' associations responsible for the maintenance of all common areas. One of the purposes of the Act is to encourage the upkeep of all common areas within and bordering the property-which in turn would lead to fewer injuries to those who enjoy use of the property and to those simply travelling across it. A decrease in the number of avoidable injuries is also linked to a decrease in insurance premiums, which is a benefit to all involved. The Act also gives those who are injured recourse - if the homeowners' association is sheltered through immunity, injured parties have one less avenue to seek compensation. The Court in Qian was quick to point out that only the homeowners' association, and not the individual unit owner, would be subject to liability for any party sustaining injuries on public sidewalks adjacent to their property. The idea behind the ruling wasn't to simply punish property owners, but to ensure that the responsibility for all walkways that members of the public may lawfully travel on are safe. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and will soon serve as Managing Research Editor of that publication.