“Ongoing Storm Rule” May Be a Thing of the Past for NJ Homeowners
Mar 17, 2021 | Written by: Share|
In a recently unpublished case, the NJ Superior Court’s Appellate Division applied the holding in Pareja to a private homeowner. Berniz v. Atkins, No. A-1537-19T1, 2020 WL 5949797, at *2 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 8, 2020). In Berniz, the plaintiff worked as a housekeeper for the defendants, who were private homeowners. When she arrived at the defendants’ home that morning, snow had not yet begun to fall. The plaintiff testified that she had parked her car in front of the garage doors where she normally parked it. According to the defendants, they contacted the plaintiff around lunchtime and asked her to move her car onto the street because it had started to snow and they wanted the snow removal company that they had contracted with to be able to plow their driveway. The plaintiff did as was requested. While she was moving her car, she noticed that the snow had started to accumulate. The plaintiff then finished her housework a few hours later and departed the defendants’ home when it was getting dark. While doing so, she fell on her way to her car on the defendants’ snow-covered driveway.
The judge granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion, and relied on Bodine v. Goerke Co., 102 N.J.L. 642, 644 (E. & A. 1926), which holds that a landowner has no duty to remove snow or ice until a reasonable time after precipitation ends. The trial court appeared to apply the so-called “ongoing-storm rule,” which relieves commercial landowners from any obligation to try to render their property safe while sleet or snow is falling. The judge also pointed out that the plaintiff knew that snow was falling and yet she chose to continue to work.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and applied the standard set forth in Pareja v. Princeton Int'l Props., 463 N.J. Super. 231, 235 (App. Div.), certif. granted, 244 N.J. 168 (2020), which holds that a commercial landowner must take reasonable steps “even when precipitation is falling.” The court explained that the mere fact that snow was falling when the plaintiff slipped and fell did not blanket the defendants with immunity. Instead, the court noted that a landowner's “duty to reasonably remove or reduce [a] hazard is triggered once ‘a reasonably prudent person ... knows or should have known’ about the dangerous condition.” Id., supra, 463 N.J. Super. at 241 (quoting Mirza v. Filmore Corp., 92 N.J. 390, 395, 456 A.2d 518 (1983)). The Appellate Court commented that the “ongoing storm rule” has no place in our jurisprudence, and that the defendants owed the plaintiff (who was a business invitee) a duty to act reasonably and within a reasonable period of time once they knew or should have known of the hazard caused by the snowfall and the setting sun. The Court further concluded that the question of whether the homeowner acted reasonably in this case was a matter for the jury.
Accordingly, it is important to keep in mind that based on this unpublished case, private homeowners may be liable if someone slips on ice or snow on their property, even in the middle of a snowstorm. There is currently an appeal pending to the State Supreme Court, so the future of the “ongoing storm rule” as it applies to homeowners remains questionable. Further, it is important to keep in mind that the plaintiff in this matter was a business invitee, not just a house guest. Accordingly, the ruling may be different if the injured plaintiff is a social guest.