Plaintiff Cuiyun Qian filed a personal injury suit against Toll Brothers, Inc., Integra Management Corp. (Management Company of Integra), The Villas at Cranbury Brook Homeowners Association (Homeowners Association), and Landscape Maintenance Services, Inc. (Landscape Inc.). She alleged that the defendants failed to maintain a common-area sidewalk on the grounds of The Villas at Cranbury Brook (Villas), causing her to slip and fall on ice.  The Villas is an "over 55," age-restricted, common-interest community, consisting of approximately 102 detached single-family homes on 32.5 acres of land. Homeowners at the Villas take title only to their dwelling units, while all other areas are common property owned by the Homeowners Association and Recreation Association. Under the community's certificate of incorporation and by-laws, the Homeowners Association has sidewalk liability - they are responsible for the maintenance of the common elements, which include the sidewalks.

The legal background of sidewalk liability

Under New Jersey common law, commercial landowners have a legal obligation to clear public sidewalks abutting their properties of snow and ice for the safe travel of pedestrians. The law does not impose a similar duty on residential landowners. In Luchejko v. City of Hoboken, 207 N.J. 191, 211 (2011), the New Jersey Supreme Court relied on the distinction in holding that a condominium association and management company were immune from suit for allegedly failing to clear ice from a public sidewalk abutting a residential condominium building. In this case, the trial court and the Appellate Division cited Luchejko in finding the sidewalk at issue was “public” and that the defendants were similarly immune from suit.

The Court’s decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. It held that residential public-sidewalk immunity does not apply in the case of a sidewalk privately owned by a common-interest community. “Who owns or controls the sidewalk, not who uses it, is the key distinguishing point between a public and private sidewalk. Here, the by-laws of the homeowners association spell out the association's duty to manage and maintain the community's common areas, including sidewalks,” Justice Barry Albin explained. The court further noted that the homeowners association also has a statutory obligation pursuant to Condominium Act, N.J.S.A. 46:8B-14(a), to manage the common elements of which the sidewalks are a part. The statute further requires homeowners' associations to maintain liability insurance. "Clearly, the Legislature believed that the private sidewalks of a common-interest community were subject to tort liability," Justice Albin stated.