Does a New Jersey property owner have a duty to protect a person who was the victim of a drive by shooting who had no intention of entering the defendants’ property and entered the property after he was shot! The short answer is NO!
NAJEE PASCHALL, v. NORFOLK SQUARE APARTMENTS and WINGATE MANAGEMENT COMPANY, LLC, SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION DOCKET NO. A-2621-17T2 —— Argued December 5, 2018 – Decided December 28, 2018
Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
Issue: Does a property owner have a duty to protect a person who was the victim of a drive by shooting who had no intention of entering the defendants’ property and entered the property after he was shot! The short answer is NO, the land owner owes no legal duty to this ‘trespasser’ to protect him/her from an unforeseeable shooting that took place off of the property and by unidentifiable persons.
Plaintiff Najee Paschall case was dismissed when the court granting summary judgment in favor of Neighborhoods of the Universities Norfolk Square Apartments Company finding defendants owed no duty to plaintiff for the injuries plaintiff suffered as a result of a drive-by shooting. The complex houses senior citizen residents and is located in a neighborhood associated with drug activities. Plaintiff was previously barred from the Norfolk Apartments as a result of his suspected drug activities and was legally identified by the court as a ‘trespasser’. Plaintiff described reaching a ramp leading to 159 Norfolk Street when the rear doors of the van opened and a person began shooting. Plaintiff ran inside 159 Norfolk Street, through a hallway in the Norfolk Apartments, and exited the rear of the building where he had been previously barred from entering as a result of his prior suspected drug activity.
Plaintiff testified he had no intention or plan to enter the Norfolk Apartments on the day of the incident. Plaintiff further testified he did not live at the Norfolk Apartments and did not need to cut through the complex to get to his home. After the van appeared, plaintiff continued walking on Norfolk Street and felt something hit him. After hearing five or six shots fired, plaintiff then ran inside the Norfolk Apartments. Plaintiff was shot in the back and taken to the hospital for treatment. Plaintiff filed a personal injury action against defendants for the injuries he suffered during the drive-by shooting, claiming he was on the property owned, operated, maintained, and supervised by defendants when he was shot.
Plaintiff’s Counsel believed the photographs submitted in opposition to defendants’ summary judgment motion were “the clearest evidence from [plaintiff] where it happened.” Plaintiff’s counsel conceded that if the incident did not happen on defendants’ property, “I wouldn’t know why we’re here. Because there’s no obligation of someone who doesn’t own the property to provide safety off the property.” Counsel for plaintiff further acknowledged he could not dispute plaintiff’s sworn deposition testimony.
After considering counsels’ oral arguments and written briefs, the motion judge granted defendants’ motion. The judge found:
Applying the Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 439 (1993). factors to the facts of this case, the [c]ourt finds that there is no basis upon which to hold [d]efendants to a duty of care as to [p]laintiff.
- Plaintiff and Defendants did not know each other. Plaintiff was neither a resident of the Norfolk Square Apartments nor a visitor of a tenant on the day of the incident. In fact, [p]laintiff was not on the property at all at the time of the drive-by shooting, nor did he have an intention or plan to be on the property.
- The nature of the risk was unforeseeable. Given the random nature of the crime committed – a drive-by shooting – the attendant risk was simply unforeseeable.
- Given the arbitrary and unprovoked nature of the incident that resulted in [p]laintiff’s injuries, the [d]efendants did not have the opportunity or ability to protect a stranger-pedestrian from a drive-by shooter. Even if security had been present, a security guard would not be able to anticipate a drive-by shooter. And [p]laintiff’s suggestion that the presence of a security guard would serve as a deterrent is sheer speculation.
- No public interest is served by imposing a duty on [d]efendants to protect strangers from random acts of violence. To impose such a duty would be unreasonable.
On appeal, plaintiff claims the judge made improper findings of fact and usurped the role of the jury in determining defendants did not owe him a duty of care. Plaintiff reiterates his arguments before the trial court that: (1) he was on defendants’ property when he was shot; (2) the attendant risk of the shooting
We review a “trial court’s grant of summary judgment de novo under the same standard as the trial court.” Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 224 N.J. 189, 199 (2016). Summary judgment must be granted when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law.” Globe Motor Co. v. Igdalev, 225 N.J. 469, 479 (2016) (quoting R. 4:46-2(c)). “An issue of fact is genuine only if, considering the burden of persuasion at trial, the evidence submitted by the parties on the motion, together with all legitimate inferences therefrom favoring the non-moving party, would require submission of the issue to the trier of fact.” R. 4:46-2(c). “When no issue of fact exists, and only a question of law remains, [a reviewing court] affords no special deference to the legal determinations of the trial court.” Templo, 224 N.J. at 199.
“Premises liability is a subset of general negligence law.” Peguero v. Tau Kappa Epsilon Local Chapter, 439 N.J. Super. 77, 88 (App. Div. 2015). To prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must establish four elements:
(1) a duty of care,
(2) a breach of that duty,
(3) proximate cause, and
(4) actual damages.”
Townsend v. Pierre, 221 N.J. 36, 51 (2015) (quoting Polzo v. Cty. of Essex, 196 N.J. 569, 584 (2008)).
Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to another is generally a question of law to be determined by the trial court. Carvalho v. Toll Bros. & Developers, 143 N.J. 565, 572 (1996). The Supreme Court has adopted a totality of the circumstances approach “when determining the existence and scope of [a] duty” in a negligence action. Clohesy v. Food Circus Supermarkets, 149 N.J. 496, 514 (1997).
Based on this approach, “a possessor of land who holds it open to the public” has a duty to “exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm” to “members of the public who enter in response to the possessor’s invitation . . . .” Id. at 515. In the case of a trespasser upon property, unlike a situation involving a licensee or an invitee on property, a landowner must only warn “of artificial conditions on the property that pose a risk of death or serious bodily harm . . . .” Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 434 (1993).
We analyze a landlord’s duty of care to an individual based on a totality of the circumstances and considerations of public policy and fairness. See Hopkins, 132 N.J. at 439; see also Acuna v. Turkish, 192 N.J. 399, 414 (2007) (quoting Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538, 544 (1984)) (finding that a “value judgment, based on an analysis of public policy” and notions of fairness was essential to the determination of a duty). The Supreme Court has established four factors for determining whether an individual owes a duty of care toward another: (1) “the relationship of the parties;” (2) “the nature of the attendant risk;” (3) “the opportunity and ability to exercise care;” and (4) “the public interest in the proposed solution.” Hopkins, 132 N.J. at 439. This “analysis is both very fact-specific and principled; it must lead to solutions that properly and fairly resolve the specific case and generate intelligible and sensible rules to govern future conduct.” Ibid.
In applying the Hopkins factors to determine whether defendants owed a duty of care in this case, the motion judge found defendants did not owe a duty of care to plaintiff under the circumstances. Plaintiff and defendants had no relationship because plaintiff was neither a tenant nor a visitor of the Norfolk Apartments at the time of the incident. Plaintiff testified at his deposition that he was not on defendants’ property when the shots were fired. Plaintiff’s photographs, attempting to place him on defendants’ property, were submitted after his deposition and after defendants moved for summary judgment. The judge concluded plaintiff’s belated affidavit amounted to an improper “sham affidavit.” Shelcusky v. Garjulio, 172 N.J. 185, 201 (2002) (requiring “a court to evaluate whether a true issue of material fact remains in the case notwithstanding an affiant’s earlier deposition testimony.”)
The judge also found plaintiff was a trespasser on defendants’ property at the time of the incident. Therefore, defendants only had a duty to warn plaintiff of dangerous artificial conditions that might result in death or serious bodily injury.
The judge concluded the attendant risk of a drive-by shooting was unforeseeable. Plaintiff offered no evidence demonstrating defendants were aware of drive-by shootings. The fact that defendants provided security at the Norfolk Apartments to prevent drug dealers from disturbing the residents did not create a duty to protect stranger-pedestrians such as plaintiff.
The judge also determined defendants had no opportunity or ability to protect a stranger-pedestrian from an unforeseeable drive-by shooting. Even if security had been present on the day of plaintiff’s incident, based on the random nature of the crime, the drive-by shooting would not have been prevented no matter the level of care or precaution taken by defendants.
Lastly, the judge found imposing a duty of care upon property owners to protect strangers from random acts of violence served no public interest. Imposing a duty of care “based on foreseeability alone could result in virtually unbounded liability[.]” Estate of Desir ex rel. Estiverne v. Vertus, 214 N.J. 303, 319 (2013). Having reviewed the record, we agree with the judge’s evaluation of the totality of the circumstances, as well as the concepts of fairness and considerations of public policy, and we also conclude defendants owed no duty of care to plaintiff. Because the question of duty is for the court to determine and there were no genuine issues of material fact, summary judgment in favor of defendants was proper as a matter of law.
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