New Jersey Appellate Division Affirms No Sidewalk Liability for Religious Organization Not Engaged in Commercial Activity

By: Paul W. Lanza, Esq.

In a recent decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed a Trial Court decision granting summary judgment in favor of a church that had been sued by a pedestrian-plaintiff.  The Appellate Division, in Rockhill v. Grace Orthodox Presbyt. Church, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 683 (Super Ct App Div Mar. 30, 2016, No. A-1697-14T3), held that defendant Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church (“GOPC”) was not a commercial user of its property, and, therefore, was entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint, as a matter of law.
 
In Rockhill, plaintiff slipped and fell on a sidewalk adjacent to GOPC’s property, sustaining personal injuries.  She alleged that GOPC’s negligent maintenance of the sidewalk was a direct and proximate cause of her injuries. 
 
In analyzing GOPC’s liability, the Appellate Division first explained that only commercial property owners are liable for injuries on the sidewalks abutting their property that are caused by their negligent failure to maintain the sidewalks in a reasonably good condition. See Stewart v. 104 Wallace St., Inc., 87 N.J. 146 (1981).  By contrast, New Jersey Courts have held that residential property owners are not liable for sidewalk injuries.  See Luchejko v. City of Hoboken 207 N.J. 191 (2011). 
 
As to the issue of whether a nonprofit religious organization’s use of its property is properly deemed commercial or residential, the Court in Dupree v. City of Clifton, 351 N.J. Super. 237 (App. Div. 2002) held that “if the use is exclusively religious, e.g. if the organization uses the property solely as a parish or rectory, then the organization will not be considered a commercial landowner, and, liability will not be imposed.“ However, “[i]f the organization’s use of the property is partially or completely commercial…liability attaches despite the nonprofit status of the owners.”
 
In the instant case, discovery revealed that at all times prior to the date of loss, and for the approximately one-year period following the incident, GOPC used its property exclusively for the religious activities of its parish and for no commercial purposes. SeeRockhill, supra.  Though GOPC did, subsequently, use its property for commercial purposes (renting the basement of the property to a youth group), the Appellate Division was not persuaded that liability should attach, and deemed that only the GOPC’s use of the premises on the date of the accident was relevant.
 
Importantly, the Appellate Division emphasized that the policy behind the Court’s ruling in Luchejko, supra, distinguishing residential and commercial users of property, influenced its decision in this case. In Luchejko, the Court held that the purpose of the distinction is to provide guidance and predictability for property owners.  For example, it allows commercial owners to know that clearing their abutting sidewalks is a cost of doing business, and it allows residential owners to safely rely on the fact that they will not be liable unless they create of exacerbate a dangerous sidewalk condition. SeeLuchejko, supra.

Likewise, in Rockhill, the Appellate Division ruled that to hold GOPC liable would deprive the defendant of its justifiable reliance upon its status as a residential owner, and, therefore it affirmed the Trial Court's ruling granting summary judgment and dismissing plaintiff’s complaint.