In Grijalba v. Floro and Martins, decided June 3, the Appellate Division wrestled yet again with the question of legal responsibility for injuries received on sidewalks. Reviewing previous state Supreme Court decisions, the court iterated that residential property owners are generally free of liability, whereas commercial property owners are not — the rationale being that a commercial party is more likely to be able to bear the costs of liability than a private property owner.
The defendant in Grijalba had converted her owner-occupied, two-family residence into a basement owner-occupied, three-family house. The trial court granted her summary judgment. The Appellate Division remanded with an instruction to consider a number of factors to determine whether the property was residential or commercial, such as the nature of the ownership, whether it was owned for investment or business purposes, the predominant use of the property (including the amount of space occupied by the owner and whether the property was utilized in whole or meaningful part as a place of residence) and whether the premises were used to generate income.
We think the time has come to free the courts of the need continually to confront these sidewalk-liability questions. As Justice Sidney Schreiber observed in his concurring opinion in Stewart v. 104 Wallace Street, Inc., 87 N.J. 146 (1981), “The public has a right to travel on the sidewalk unimpeded by obstructions or dangerous conditions. The property owner is generally in the best position to become aware of disrepair, and then correct the condition.”
Municipalities may prescribe by ordinance the instances in which abutting landowners must construct and maintain curbs and sidewalks. We would favor a statute holding all abutting owners responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks and potentially liable in negligence for injuries sustained thereon. While residential property owners would not be able to pass the cost of such obligation onto others, as commercial property owners presumably could, we do not consider that significant. Property owners can obtain liability insurance that would extend to abutting sidewalks. And the courts would be freed of the periodic need to make the kind of detailed factual examination that was required in Grijalba.