In a unanimous ruling, the court said the pivotal factor in determining sidewalk liability is who owns the sidewalk, not who uses it.
"Who owns or controls the sidewalk, not who uses it, is the key distinguishing point between a public and private sidewalk," wrote Justice Barry Albin for the court in Qian v. Toll Brothers on Aug. 12.
In ruling, the court overturned two lower court rulings that said the condominium association in this case was not liable.
"Residential sidewalk immunity does not apply in the case of a sidewalk privately owned by a common-interest community," Albin said.
Plaintiff Cuiyan Qian was injured on Dec. 21, 2008, while walking in her development, the Village at Cranbury Brook in Plainsboro, according to court documents. She was walking to the grocery store shortly after a freezing rain had left a veneer of ice on the sidewalks that had not been cleared.
The Village at Cranbury Brook Homeowners' Association had retained Integra Management Co. to maintain the development and Integra had hired Landscape Maintenance Services to clear ice and snow from sidewalks, court documents said. The development is restricted to those 55 and over, and contains 102 single-family homes.
The contract with LMS said LMS would automatically clear any snow or ice falls of two inches or more, and that the homeowners' association would have to pay for extra services for cleaning any accumulation of two inches or less, according to court documents. In this case, the homeowners' association did not ask for additional services.
Both a trial judge and the Appellate Division found the Supreme Court's 2011 ruling in Luchejko v. Hoboken applied and that the defendants had immunity from liability. In Luchejko, the court ruled that a condominium association had no duty to maintain public sidewalks abutting its property.
Under state law, commercial property owners have a common law duty to maintain sidewalks abutting their premises, while homeowners do not, even though municipal ordinances may require them to do so.