Often, when people get injured while traversing poorly maintained sidewalks, they file a personal injury lawsuit against the property owner.

In a landmark 4-3 ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court has just upended decades-long standing case law, establishing that all commercial landowners - even of vacant lots - have a duty to maintain public sidewalks and are liable to pedestrians who are injured as a result of their negligent failure to do so.

The case is Alejandra Padilla v. Young Il An and Myo Soon An. In this matter, Plaintiff Alejandra Padilla slipped and fell on the sidewalk abutting a vacant lot in Camden owned by defendants Myo Soon and Young Il An. Claiming she suffered severe serious bodily injuries that left her with permanent disabilities impeding her ability to work, plaintiff sued defendants, alleging their negligence in failing to maintain the sidewalk created an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians.

The Superior Court judge dismissed the case based upon the precedential 1995 Appellate Division opinion of Abraham v. Gupta which found that property owners have no duty to maintain a sidewalk which abutts a vacant lot which was not generating any income. The judge also rejected plaintiff's argument that defendants could have generated income by either developing or selling the property.

In a published decision released on January 4, 2023, Appellate Division Judges Sumners and Geiger affirmed the trial court's ruling, finding that “Abraham remains good law that an owner of a non-income producing vacant lot owes no duty to the public to maintain the lot’s abutting sidewalk in a safe condition. Plaintiff has pointed to no reason why we should deviate from that ruling, which was rendered almost three decades ago.”

In a 4-3 decision released on Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court has now majorly reversed this decision.

The majority opinion, which was penned by Associate Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis and joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Associate Justices Michael Noriega and Douglas M. Fasciale, held that all commercial landowners must maintain public sidewalks - including those abutting vacant lots - and are liable to pedestrians who are injured as a result of their negligent failure to do so.

“For over four decades since Stewart, our courts have adhered to the rule imposing liability on commercial landowners,” Pierre-Louis wrote. “We are now tasked with determining whether that same liability should apply to commercial landowners of vacant lots.”

"Indeed, when someone purchases a vacant commercial lot, that is a business decision that embraces all the attendant costs and burdens of conducting business... We conclude that one of those costs necessarily includes maintaining the abutting sidewalks so that they are in a reasonably safe condition for innocent passersby," Pierre-Louis concluded

Pierre-Louis noted that in a 1993 New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, the court noted that the question of “whether a duty exists is ultimately a question of fairness.”

“That guiding principle leads us to conclude that a duty should be imposed on owners of vacant commercial lots to maintain the abutting sidewalks in reasonably good condition,” Pierre-Louis said. “There is something profoundly unfair about commercial property owners purchasing vacant lots and having no responsibility whatsoever for maintaining the area where the general public traverses.”

"The bright-line rule we articulate today -- that all commercial property owners owe a duty to maintain abutting sidewalks in reasonably good condition -- will ensure fairness, consistency, and predictability in our courts going forward... To the extent that Abraham conflicts with the Court’s decision, it is overruled," Pierre-Louis emphasized.

The dissent, penned by Associate Justice Lee A. Solomon, and joined by Associate Justices Anne M. Patterson and Rachel Wainer Apter disagreed with the majority’s decision to overrule Abraham and issue a blanket rule that sidewalk liability should be based on a property’s zoning. That decision eliminated the long-accepted distinction that Abraham imposed among commercial property owners. Solomon noted that by overruling Abraham, the majority ignored precedent and appropriated the role of the Legislature.

The dissent argues that the majority purportedly relied on the principles of fairness to impose liability on the owner of a nonrevenue-generating lot and placed the burden on a commercial property owner with no means of addressing the resulting costs.

“That liability devalues defendants’ property, resulting in further devaluation of surrounding properties,” Solomon wrote. “The majority’s decision does not promote fairness; rather, the decision promotes unfairness to residents and businesses who have chosen to invest in Camden’s future.”

“The majority’s expansion of liability in this setting expropriates a decision that this court in Stewart correctly stated rests with the Legislature elected by the citizens of New Jersey to set policy,” Solomon said. “I therefore dissent.”

The winning attorney is Michael Confusione Esq. of Hegge & Confusione, LLC.

As previously reported here on FAA News, back in June 2023, the State's highest court also agreed to review whether residential property owners have a duty to maintain sidewalks abutting their property.

However, that appeal was dismissed after being settled out of court.

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