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New Jersey Supreme Court Adopts the Ongoing Storm Rule and Rules That Commercial Landowners Do Not Owe a Duty to Clear Snow and Ice During an Ongoing Storm

Jun 24, 2021 - News by

On June 10, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court reached a decision in the matter of Pareja v. Princeton International Properties 2021 WL 2371260.  This decision, which is important in the context of commercial property landowners, is summarized below.

Plaintiff, Pareja filed a lawsuit for personal injuries when he when he slipped and fell on a driveway apron, that section of the sidewalk that connects the driveway to the road, owned and managed by Princeton International Properties.  At the time of the fall, at or around 7:00 am to 8:00 am, there was a mix of rain and pockets of freezing rain and the temperature was between 32 degrees and 33 degrees.  The plaintiff was unable to see the ice with the rain falling when he fell on the driveway apron and broke his hip.

Princeton filed for Summary Judgment in the trial court arguing that the ongoing storm ruled applied and, thus, there was no duty to maintain the sidewalks during the storm.  The plaintiff argued that Princeton had a duty of reasonable care to maintain the sidewalk even when the storm was ongoing.  The trial court agreed with the defendants  and granted the motion. 

In the Appellate Division, Princeton argued for the Court to adopt the ongoing storm rule.  The plaintiff argued that the defendant had the duty of reasonable care to maintain the sidewalk even when precipitation was ongoing.  The Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiff and reversed the trial court’s ruling.  The Appellate division reasoned that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether defendant had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and whether Princeton acted reasonably and held that commercial landowners had the duty to take measures to make sure the property is reasonably safe even if a storm is ongoing.  In determining whether to impose a duty of reasonable care on commercial landowners during a storm, the Appellate Division looked to Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426 (1993) and decided that the factors in Hopkins favored imposing a duty of reasonable care.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and disagreed with the Appellate Division’s reasoning and reversed the decision.  Princeton argued that this Court has repeatedly implemented the principals of the ongoing storm rule and asked the Supreme Court to expressly adopt it in this case.  Princeton further argued that the Appellate Division misinterpreted the ongoing storm rule as arbitrary when the rule reflects commonsense in that it is inefficient and impractical for landowners to prevent the accumulation of snow and ice during an ongoing storm.  The plaintiff argued that the Appellate Division’s rejection of the rule is in line with the Court’s precedent.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey decided to adopt the ongoing storm rule because the premise of the rule “is that it is categorically inexpedient and impractical to remove or reduce hazards from snow and ice while the precipitation is ongoing.”  Further, the Court reiterated that “absent unusual circumstances, a commercial landowner’s duty to remove snow and ice hazards arises not during the storm, but rather, within a reasonable time after the storm.”

The Supreme Court, in adopting this rule, established two exceptions to this rule.  First, if the commercial landowner does anything to increase the risk, it will expose the landowner to liability.  Second, if the hazardous condition was caused by a prior storm where snow and ice were not properly removed, it will expose the landowner to liability.