Homeowners Association Can be Liable for Injuries on Sidewalks Owned and Controlled by Such Associations

Qian v. Toll Brothers, Inc., 223 N.J. 124 (2015).  In Luchejko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191 (2011), discussed here, the Supreme Court ruled that a condominium association was not liable to a person who was injured after falling on a public sidewalk that adjoined the residential condominium community.  The issue in this case was whether a homeowners association was liable for a fall on a sidewalk that was owned and controlled by that association.  In an opinion by Justice Albin, the Court unanimously found that the association could be liable.  The Court reversed the decisions of the two courts below, which had granted summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

The distinction between publicly-owned and privately-owned sidewalks was dispositive.  The governing documents for the development stated that sidewalks are common elements, and under the Condominium Act, N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14, an association is responsible for “maintenance, repair, replacement, cleaning and sanitation of the common elements.”  Justice Albin found further support for that result in the fact that, in N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-13, the Legislature “recognized the application of premises liability to the common elements of a ‘qualified common interest community’ by crafting a limited immunity protecting homeowners associations from certain lawsuits brought by unit owners.”  The Court found it clear that “the Legislature believed that the private sidewalks of a common-interest community were subject to tort liability; otherwise, it would not have conferred a limited immunity on homeowners associations.”

Under the de novo standard of review applicable to the pure legal issues involved here, the “stark factual differences” between Luchejko and this case made Luchejko inapplicable, contrary to the opinion of the Appellate Division, which had relied on Luchejko.  Among the factual differences were that, there, the public sidewalk was not a part of the common elements of the condominium, the association had no responsibility for that sidewalk and did not collect fees from owners in order to maintain it, and the association did not have the statutory duty to insure against damages arising from accidents on the sidewalk.  None of those things were so here.  But Justice Albin emphasized that “most importantly, in Luchejko, the accident occurred on a public sidewalk abutting the condominium complex, [while] here, plaintiff’s accident occurred on a private sidewalk within the [development].”

The Court’s jurisprudence on sidewalk liability is extensive, and it has taken many twists and turns (as well as some reversals) over the years.  Justice Albin’s opinion provided “a brief overview” of that jurisprudence, and it makes interesting reading for anyone who is involved in this area of the law.  But since none of the key Supreme Court cases had “deal[t] with the distinction between public and private ownership of a sidewalk for purposes of tort liability, which is the focal point of this appeal,” this case answered a previously unanswered question in the area of sidewalk liability.