There was a time, although that time was more than 40 years ago and stretched back more than a century, that our courts adhered to the English common-law rule that government bore primary responsibility for the maintenance of sidewalks and the abutting owner of commercial or residential property was not liable for any condition of the sidewalk caused by action of the elements or by wear and tear incident to public use. Liability in New Jersey attached only for negligent construction or repair of the sidewalk or obstruction of the sidewalk by the owner in such a manner as to render it unsafe for passersby. Over the course of time, New Jersey Supreme Court justices in a dissent or concurrence would comment on the “gross injustice” of immunizing wrongdoers whose flagrant neglect of duty caused injury to innocent parties. But those voices, including that of Justice Morris Pashman, were ineffective in changing the “no liability” rule.

In 1970, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 40:65-14, which empowered municipalities to require landowners to make repairs to and maintain abutting sidewalks. It also empowered municipalities to make the repairs and perform the necessary maintenance when landowners had failed to do so, but that enactment did not provide a liability remedy to passersby who had fallen on a sidewalk in disrepair or in need of maintenance.