In Alejandra Padilla v. Young Il An (A-43-22) (087862), the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision in a case involving sidewalk liability for owners of vacant commercial lots.  The Court’s decision emphasized fairness and public policy and mandated that all commercial landowners, including those with vacant lots, maintain the sidewalks abutting their properties in reasonably good condition.  This ruling expands the scope of liability established over four decades ago in Stewart v. 104 Wallace Street, Inc., 87 N.J. 146 (1981), adapting it to modern considerations.

In September 2019, Alejandra Padilla tripped and fell on a public sidewalk adjacent to a vacant commercial lot in Camden, New Jersey, owned by Young Il An and Myo Soon An.  She sustained serious injuries, including a broken foot and an injured arm, requiring surgery.  Padilla sued the property owners for negligence, claiming their failure to maintain the sidewalk led to her injuries.  In response, the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing they owed no duty of care as the lot was vacant and non-income producing.  Both the trial court and the Appellate Division sided with the defendants, holding that owners of vacant commercial lots are not responsible for maintaining adjacent sidewalks.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision reversed the lower courts’ rulings, imposing a duty on owners of vacant commercial lots to maintain abutting sidewalks.  The Court’s reasoning is grounded in a century of evolving jurisprudence focused on fairness.  Historically, New Jersey’s common law rule exempted abutting property owners, both commercial and residential, from liability for sidewalk conditions caused by natural wear and tear.  The responsibility primarily lies with the government.  However, the Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Stewart v. 104 Wallace Street, Inc. marked a departure from this rule, holding that commercial landowners are responsible for maintaining sidewalks in reasonably good condition, due to their substantial interest in ensuring safe access to their businesses.

In this case, the Supreme Court concluded that commercial property owners, regardless of whether their lots are vacant, should bear responsibility for maintaining adjacent sidewalks.  The Court emphasized that commercial properties are inherently intended for profit-making, and owners should anticipate the associated costs, including liability insurance.

Essentially, the Court found it unfair and contrary to public policy to exempt owners of vacant commercial lots from this duty, leaving pedestrians vulnerable and removing any incentive for property owners to ensure safe passage on public sidewalks.  The decision underscores that the duty of care should be clear and consistent, avoiding a case-by-case analysis that could lead to arbitrary results.  The Court pointed out the impracticality of determining liability based on a property’s profitability or its “path to profit,” advocating for a straightforward rule applicable to all commercial properties.

By establishing this bright-line rule, the Court aimed to protect the public and provide clear guidelines for courts and property owners.  The ruling reflects modern-day uses of property and sidewalks, ensuring that all injured pedestrians have legal recourse and that property owners are incentivized to maintain safe sidewalks.

The decision also included a dissent that argued that imposing liability on owners of vacant commercial lots for sidewalk maintenance is both unfair and overreaching, undermining established legal principles and legislative authority.  The dissent highlighted that, historically, liability has been linked to a property’s capacity to generate income, as seen in Stewart v. 104 Wallace Street, Inc., Abraham v. Gupta, and Gray v. Caldwell Wood Products, Inc.  The dissent noted that the vacant lot in question lacks income-generating characteristics and should not be subjected to the same liability as active commercial enterprises.  Additionally, the dissent pointed out that this expansion of liability devalues properties, places an undue burden on owners without means to address costs, and encroaches on the Legislature’s role in setting such policies.

A copy of the Padilla decision can be found here.

For additional questions, please contact Robert J. Cahall, Esq., Scott J. Tredwell, Esq., and/or Igor Konstankevich, Esq.

This article was prepared by McCormick & Priore, P.C. to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers.  This publication is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reprinted without the express permission of McCormick & Priore, P.C.