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NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT CLARIFIES DUTY OF HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATIONS TO MAINTAIN PRIVATELY OWNED SIDEWALKS WITHIN THE COMMON INTEREST COMMUNITY

By: Christopher P. Lagay, Esq.
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently published an opinion which clarifies the liabilities of “common interest communities,” such as homeowner’s associations, for maintenance of the common areas under the association’s control. In Qian v. Toll Brothers, 223 N.J. 124 (2015), the Court reversed the appellate divisions affirmance of summary judgment granted by the trial court to the homeowner’s association and management community, and remanded the case.

Plaintiff, Cuiyun Qian was a non-owner resident of The Villas at Cranberry Brook, an over 55, age restricted common interest community. The record before the Supreme Court suggested that her son was the title owner of the property. Homeowners at The Villas owned their residences only, and all other real property, including sidewalks and interior roadways, were owned as common areas by the homeowner’s association, of which all unit owners are obligatory members. Unit owners are charged monthly assessments for the maintenance of the common areas, to include snow and ice removal.
On December 21, 2008, following a period of freezing rain, plaintiff walked over the privately owned sidewalks within The Villas to a store, and upon her return on the same private sidewalks, slipped and fell, sustaining injuries. After she filed suit, the homeowner’s association and management company filed motions for summary judgment, relying on Luchechko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191 (2011), which had reinforced the distinction between residential and commercial property owner liability for sidewalk maintenance. On appeal, the appellate division affirmed.
In New Jersey, at common law, property owners were under no duty to keep the public sidewalks adjoining their premises clear from snow and ice. Generally, both commercial and residential property owners were not liable for the condition of the public sidewalks whether caused by weather or wear and tear. However, in the case of Stewart v. 104 Wallace St., Inc., 87 N.J. 146 (1981), the Supreme Court recognized the distinction between commercial property owners and residential property owners, imposing a duty on commercial owners to maintain the public sidewalks adjoining their properties. Residential property owners were still free from a common law duty to clear snow and ice from public sidewalks.
In Luchechko, the Supreme Court held that a condominium complex, purely residential in nature, enjoyed the same freedom from duty to clear snow and ice from adjoining public sidewalks, as did the property manager. In Qian, the Supreme Court noted that the entity owning or controlling the sidewalk, as opposed to who uses the sidewalk, was a key distinguishing factor in determining whether a sidewalk is private or public.
Noting that neither Stewart nor Luchechko dealt with the distinction between public and private sidewalks, the Qian court distinguished Luchechko, by noting that in Qian, the Certificate of Incorporation of the homeowner’s association, referencing Declarations of Covenants, Easements and Restrictions for the association, and the association’s by-laws, clearly identify all sidewalks and interior roadways as common elements, for which the association bore both a statutory and contractual duty of maintenance. In Luchechko, the adjoining sidewalk was not identified as a common element of the condominium.
Further, in Qian, the association collected fees from unit owners for the maintenance of the sidewalks, unlike the condominium association in Luchechko. In Luchechko, the condominium association was not required to maintain liability insurance against the risk of damages from accidents on the adjoining public sidewalk, where the association in Qian was required by statute (NJSA 46:8B-14(e) to maintain insurance against liability for personal injury occurring within its common elements. The Supreme Court noted that the Legislature therefore recognized the application of premises liability principles with respect to common elements of common interest communities. Most importantly for the Qian court, the injury in Qian occurred on a private sidewalk, and not a public sidewalk, as in Luchechko.
For the foregoing reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case to the trial court, for proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Supreme Court specifically expressed no opinion as to whether the immunity from suit provisions contained in the association’s by-laws, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-13(b), were operative in this matter, leaving that issue to be explored by the trial court on remand.