Arguments Swirl at Top NJ Court Over Upkeep of Storm-Battered Properties

On what might have been in a snow day before the Zoom age, the New Jersey Supreme Court waded into a lawsuit that says property owners have a duty to keep sidewalks safe even while a storm is still raging.

A woman tries to protect her face from blowing snow while walking in white-out conditions in Jersey City, N.J., on Monday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — New Jersey is in a state of emergency from a massive nor’easter Monday, but the state Supreme Court plowed ahead this morning in an appeal over snowstorm sidewalk safety.

Angel Alberto Pareja brought the underlying case after an icy sidewalk caused him to slip and fall, breaking his hip, while trying to get to work on Jan. 12, 2015.

While Pareja claimed that his injury might not have happened if the property owner had properly maintained its sidewalk before and during the storm, Princeton International Properties claimed it was shielded by the ongoing-storm rule.

That defense did not impress the New Jersey Superior Court, however, a panel of which breathed new life into Pareja’s suit last year.  

William Bloom, representing the property owner, sought a reversal of that ruling Monday, calling it impractical to expect that property owners keep their grounds in safe condition before the clouds of a storm have parted.

“When you’re throwing down salt, and the ice is still falling and the snow is still falling, yeah it’s a good effort but is it reasonable,” Bloom questioned.

Justice Barry Albin pushed back, asking why it is unreasonable to ask a property owner to make sure their sidewalks are safe, especially if the storm is not that bad. 

“If there is light precipitation or ice, it would take little effort to throw down some salt,” said Albin.

Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina challenged his colleague.

“Doesn’t that assume a one-time salting,” asked Fernandez-Vina. “How often and how much time between each salting?”

The Methfessel Werbel attorney agreed with Fernandez-Vina, noting that Pareja was on Princeton’s sidewalk but otherwise had no connection to the property.

Albin disagreed with that argument, saying that has nothing to do with the duty to maintain the sidewalk.

“There’s a duty to a tenant but not a pedestrian,” asked Albin.

Bloom denied taking that stance, adding that the cost for such maintenance may be too much for a smaller business. 

“Obviously Walmart has the resources,” said Bloom. “But it’s a dangerous area when you start taking into consideration financials on whether or not to impose a duty.” 

David Corvasce, attorney for Pareja, said the request he has for properties is simple.

“Go out and buy a $7 bag of salt, that’s all we’re asking,” said Corvasce, with Garces Grabler law firm. 

Justice Lee Solomon did not seem to think it was that simple and questioned how that would be enough during a severe storm.

“Isn’t whether the storm is ongoing an important factor,” asked Solomon.

Corvasce agreed but reminded the panel how important pretreatment is.

Javerbaum Wurgaft attorney Eric Kahn, who appeared Monday as a friend of the court, said in a statement after arguments that it is only fair to expect properties to maintain their walkways when there is a storm. 

“This includes the duty to act reasonable both before, during and after snowstorms,” Kahn said in an email. “We should not encourage commercial landowners to do nothing, which would not be reasonable under many circumstances, to the detriment of people lawfully using our sidewalks and other commercial property.”

Neither Bloom nor Corvasce respondeded to emails seeking comment.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Anne Patterson, Jaynee LaVecchia and Fabian Pierre-Louis were also present for virtual arguments this morning.

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