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Skating Through Snow and Ice Mishaps - A Primer in New Jersey’s Premises Liability Law

New Jersey
July 12, 2022
January 27, 2021

As winter approaches and the first snow begins to fall, New Jersey property owners will undoubtedly question whether they have a responsibility to remove snow and ice on sidewalks abutting their properties.  Luckily, New Jersey has well-established principles in this regard.  

At the outset, an owner’s obligation turns on whether the property is commercial or residential.

If the property is commercial, the owner has an affirmative duty to remove snow and ice from abutting public sidewalks. In the seminal case of Stewart v.104 Wallace St., Inc., 87 N.J. 146, 157, 432 A.2d 881 (1981), the Supreme Court of New Jersey imposed a duty of care “on commercial landowners” to “maintain[] in reasonably good condition the sidewalks abutting their property” or risk liability “to pedestrians injured as a result of their negligent failure to do so.”  In Mirza v. Filmore Corp., 92 N.J. 390, 456 A.2d 518 (1983), the court extended the duty to maintain public sidewalks abutting commercial properties to include “the duty to remove snow and ice” impose liability if “after actual or constructive notice,” the abutting commercial owner “has not acted in a reasonably prudent manner under [*12] the circumstances to remove or reduce the hazard.” Id. at 395.

If the property is residential, the owner does not have a duty to clear snow and ice from abutting public sidewalks. Qian v. Toll Bros. Inc., 223 N.J. 124, 135, 121 A.3d 363 (2015) (quoting Skupienski v. Maly, 27 N.J. 240, 247, 142 A.2d 220 (1958)); Lucheiko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191, 201, 23 A.3d 912 (2011).  However, if a residential property owner decides to remove snow and ice from a public sidewalk, he or she will not be liable to a pedestrian who is injured unless they through their negligence create a new element of danger or hazard, other than one caused by natural forces (e.g., melt and refreeze, ice formation, etc.) Lucheiko, 207 N.J. at 201 (alterations in original) (quoting Saco v. Hall, 1 N.J. 337, 381, 63 A.2d 887 (1949)).  In this way, the law encourages residential property owners to clear public sidewalks, protecting them from liability unless they create a new danger or hazard outside of those caused by natural forces.

It is important to keep in mind that though residential property owners may not have a duty under common law, they may be required under local ordinances to take action.   More specifically, municipalities may set forth their own requirements for snow and ice removal from abutting sidewalks.  Though violation of a municipal ordinance would not subject a property owner to tort liability for a pedestrian who slips and falls, it may result in imposition of a fine or other sanction. Every township has different laws regarding obligations for snow and ice removal.  For example, in Moorestown Township, local ordinance §147-1 provides that property owners whose land abuts a paved sidewalk must remove all snow and ice from the sidewalk for a width of not less than four feet within 12 hours of daylight next after such snow and ice falls or forms thereon.  If they do not, the township will remove it for them, and the cost of same will be charged against the property.  Therefore, property owners should familiarize themselves with local ordinances to insulate themselves from such risk.