We’re all thankful that spring has finally arrived after such a long, snowy winter that seemed like it would never end. While our little corner of the world remained covered in snow, ice and slush from January through March, many people suffered injuries in falls as they walked through their neighborhoods. When you fall on snow or ice and suffer an injury, you may be entitled to compensation for your loss. However, if you fall and are injured on snow or ice on a public sidewalk, you are likely out of luck.
In addressing these issues a recent case comes to mind. The case involved a fall on a city-owned sidewalk in Trenton, New Jersey. Anytime a person is injured on municipally owned property, Title 59 of the New Jersey Statutes comes into play. Title 59 provides broad immunity from liability (or fault) for cities, towns, counties, the State and other governmental entities in New Jersey. For example, Title 59 (N.J.S.A. 59:4-7) prevents government entities from being held responsible for injuries sustained in accidents on public streets and highways for reasons related to weather conditions. In other words, if you fall and injure yourself on ice in a public street, you will not be successful in a lawsuit against the city or town that owned the street.
In addition, there are common law immunities that prevent people injured in falls on icy or snow-covered public sidewalks from successfully pursuing claims against the city or town that owns the sidewalk, no matter how dangerous the sidewalk was when the fall occurred. “Indeed, the Supreme Court considers ‘the common-law immunity for snow-removal activities of public entities to be among the most significant immunities recognized by judicial decision prior to the adoption of the Act [Title 59].” Lathers v Township of West Windsor, 308 N.J. Super. 301, 304 (App. Div. 1998)(quoting Rochinsky v. State of N.J. Dep’t of Transp., 110 N.J. 399, 314 (1988)). The reason for this is because:
No matter how effective an entity’s snow-removal activities may be, a multitude of claims could be filed after every snowstorm. We can conceive of no other governmental function that would expose public entities to more litigation if this immunity were to be abrogated. [Id. at 413.]
Furthermore, “if liability were to be imposed on a public entity for injuries caused by its snow removal, it would be required to ‘broom sweep’ the areas from which it removed snow.” Miehl v. Darpino, 53 N.J. 49, 53 (1968). “Further, ‘the high cost of such an undertaking could make the expense of any extensive program of snow removal prohibitive and could result in no program or in an inadequate partial program.’” Id. at 54. “Therefore, since ‘[t]he public is greatly benefitted even by snow removal which  does not attain the acme of perfection of ‘broom swept’ streets,’ a public entity will not be held liable for injuries arising from its snow removal activities.” Ibid.
Against this legal backdrop, my recent case in Trenton resulted in a dismissal of the lawsuit against the City of Trenton because the judge found the City to be totally immune from liability or fault for its ice-covered sidewalk. The lesson to take away from that experience was that there is a very high bar to pursuing a claim against a public or government entity for injuries resulting from falls on snowy or icy public sidewalks, no matter how significant the injury was. So while we certainly do not expect any more snow or ice for many months, when next winter approaches, be mindful when you walk on public sidewalks because you most likely will not be able to successfully pursue a claim against the public or government entity that owns the sidewalk for your injuries if you fall.
If you or a loved one has been injured, contact Stark & Stark today for your free consultation.