Condominium Association Owed Duty of Care to Resident Who Fell on Stairway Lacking Center Railing

Lechler v. 303 Sunset Avenue Condominium Association, Inc., 452 N.J. Super. 574 (App. Div. 2017).  The Appellate Division got in under the wire, on this final business day of 2017, with this opinion by Judge Hoffman in a personal injury case.  Plaintiffs, husband and wife, lived at 303 Sunset Avenue, Asbury Park, a  condominium building.  The husband fell and injured himself while walking down a 13-foot wide stairway that led from the building to a walkway.  The stairway had railings on the sides but no railing in the center, though there was evidence that there had once been such a railing.  Plaintiffs sued (the wife sued per quod) the condominium association and the property manager, asserting that they had negligently created a dangerous condition by not having a center railing.  The Law Division granted defendants a directed verdict.  Plaintiffs appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial.

The Law Division had ruled that the husband was a licensee who was aware of the condition of the stairway.  The standard of review was whether reasonable minds could differ as to the outcome if all evidence that supports the opponent of a motion for directed verdict is accepted as true and if that party were given all reasonable inferences from the evidence.  Applying that standard, Judge Hoffman found that the directed verdict was error.

After discussing Supreme Court cases that discussed the status of common law categories such as invitees, licensees, and others, Judge Hoffman stated that the panel “did not “view plaintiff’s status as a licensee or an invitee as the controlling issue.  Instead, a statute establishes the Association’s duty to plaintiff.”  N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14 required the Association to maintain and repair the common elements of the condominium, and a Hotel and Multiple Dwelling regulation required a center railing for stairways of this width.  The fact that the absence of a center railing was “obvious and not hidden” did not override those statutory and regulatory enactments, since the Association and the property manager “were in a better position to know that the absence of a center handrail presented a safety issue and the need to correct it.”

Judge Hoffman noted that the Association could have adopted a by-law immunizing it from negligence actions by unit owners, as permitted by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-13(a).  The Association had not done that here.  That may be the biggest lesson of today’s decision.