NJ Supreme Court Declines to Extend Residential Public-Sidewalk Immunity to Homewoners Association (HOA) Privately Owned Sidewalks

Under New Jersey law, commercial property owners have a duty to maintain the sidewalks abutting their properties and can be held liable for injuries occurring on those sidewalks. Residential landowners, on the other hand, do not have the same responsibilities and are immune from claims for personal injuries on residential sidewalks.

In the 2011 case of Luchejko v. City of Hoboken, the New Jersey Supreme Court extended residential sidewalk immunity to Homeowners Associations (“HOAs”) for injuries occurring on public sidewalks adjoining residential condominium communities. Recently, the Court addressed the issue of whether this immunity also applies to claims for personal injuries occurring on a private sidewalk owned and controlled by an HOA. In Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc., the Supreme Court declined to extend the immunity, finding that such immunity does not apply in cases where a sidewalk is privately owned by an HOA.

In Qian, plaintiff, a resident in a common-interest community, was injured after slipping and falling on an icy sidewalk in the community. The HOA had retained a contractor to apply salt to the roadways of the community, but did not request that the sidewalks and walkways be salted and cleared.

Plaintiff filed suit against multiple parties, including the HOA, to recover for her injuries. The trial court granted summary judgment to the HOA on the basis that the sidewalks of the community were the functional equivalent of public sidewalks and that immunity existed pursuant to the Court’s opinion in Luchejko. The appellate court agreed and plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.

In reaching their decision, the Court noted that the key distinguishing point between a public and private sidewalk is not who uses it, but who owns or controls the sidewalk. An important factor in determining whether a sidewalk is public focuses on whether the municipality has control over the care and maintenance of the sidewalk.

In this case, the Court found that the HOA had a duty to manage and maintain the community’s common areas, which included the sidewalks, pursuant to the HOA by-laws and the New Jersey Condominium Act. There was no evidence in the record that the municipality had any responsibility for the community’s interior sidewalks. In addition, the HOA charged fees to the homeowners for maintenance of the common areas.

Accordingly, the Court determined that the sidewalks in the community were private and that the HOA had a duty to keep them clear of ice and snow. The case was remanded to the trial court to determine the liability of the HOA for plaintiff’s injuries.