Residential Owners Owe No Duty to Clean Sidewalk of Snow and Ice

Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

31-2-3452 Valentine v. Almanzar, N.J. Super. App. Div. (per curiam) (9 pp.)

In New Jersey, residential owners do not have a legal duty to clear snow or ice from a public sidewalk, and the failure to do so does not expose them to tort liability.  However, there is an exception carved out for commercial properties, which do have a responsibility to clear the sidewalks of snow.  The issue becomes whether a residential property that is rented to a third party becomes a commercial property.

In a recent case, the plaintiff slipped on ice that covered the sidewalk adjacent to the defendants’ home.  As a result, he was seriously injured.  The plaintiff filed suit against the owners of the home adjacent to the particular area of the sidewalk, claiming negligent maintenance of the sidewalk by failing to remove the snow and ice.

The property was a three family home, two of which the owners used to rent out to third parties.  The rent money collected was then used to cover the mortgage payments and utility bills.

The plaintiff claimed that because the defendants were using the property to collect rent, this constituted a commercial property.  A commercial property owner is responsible for removing snow and ice from an adjacent sidewalk.  An owner of a residential property, however, does not have that same duty.  This is true even if a municipal ordinance requires a residential owner to clear their sidewalks.

The issue became whether the this particular property was to be considered a commercial property instead of a residential property because of rent collection.  In order to classify the distinction between residential and commercial properties, courts look towards the nature of ownership and the predominant use of the property. The Court found that there was no evidence the property was used for office or business purposes. The property was used as a long time residence, and the small profit they received was seen to be insufficient to cover repair and maintenance expenses, requiring personal funds for those purposes.  Therefore, the defendants were not using the property as a method to make money, rather to retain the home under tight financial circumstances.

In summary, even though you are renting out part of your home, it might not mean you have a commercial property.  The courts will look towards the property’s primary use, whether this is to make money or just to make enough to cover expenses to continue residing in the property.  Commercial owners have to clear sidewalks of snow and ice to avoid liability, and residential owners do not.

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