The debate over the responsibility of commercial property owners during a winter storm continues. Many states have adopted the Ongoing Storm Rule (also known as the Storm in Progress Rule) which shields property owners of responsibility over accidents until an adequate period of time has passed following the end of a storm. It seemed as if New Jersey was moving toward adopting the rule until a recent Appellate Court decision found that it does not apply in New Jersey, and went as far as calling the rule arbitrary and contrary to the main function of injury law.
The case Pareja v. Princeton International Proprieties involved a plaintiff who slipped on black ice on the driveway apron of a commercial building. At the time of the incident it was drizzling sleet. The record showed that the owner employed maintenance people to perform snow and ice removal and there were ongoing storms prior to the incident, along with a prior 28-hour advisory report warning that untreated surfaces could become slippery. The plaintiff’s expert witness also testified that pre-treating the slippery conditions could have reduced the hazard. The court found that, under these circumstances, it was for a jury to decide whether the property owner acted reasonably after receiving notice of a possible hazardous conditions. Although the ongoing storm was an important factor to consider, it was not grounds for automatic dismissal, according to the Appellate Court.. The court emphasized that the automatic application of an ongoing storm rule would take away any incentive to make a known dangerous condition safer, even if it would be reasonable to do so. It also noted that declining to adopt the ongoing storm rule would not require a property owner to immediately clear every inch of the property. Instead, the jury would need to consider whether, in the light of a continuing storm, the commercial owner took any reasonable steps that a prudent person would have taken to make the dangerous condition safer. The court also emphasized that this approach is fair for all the innocent plaintiffs that otherwise would be left without a recourse, especially because the owner is in the best position to remove or reduce any foreseeable snow or ice hazards.
The case is in contrast to the decision last year in Dixon v. HQ Equities Associates, from a different set of New Jersey appellate judges. In that case, the plaintiff slipped and fell on snow, on a sidewalk adjacent to a parking lot, while it was still snowing. The plaintiff brought suit against the parking lot owner, claiming that it failed to maintain the sidewalk in a reasonable safe condition. That court noted that a property owner is only required to make a sidewalk safe within a reasonable time after discovery of an unsafe condition. The court also stressed that principles of fairness could not require a commercial property owner to make a sidewalk safer while snow is still accumulating. The court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the defendant’s live-in superintendent had notice of the condition and owed her a duty to at least attempt to make the sidewalk safer for everyone that wanted to go onto the parking lot. The court noted that whether someone salted or sanded the sidewalk prior to the plaintiff’s fall was irrelevant because the snow was ongoing when the plaintiff slipped and the owner owed her no duty while the storm was in progress.
These competing decisions leave the final decision on the matter for the New Jersey Supreme Court.
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