As far as New Jersey state law is concerned, homeowners are not responsible to maintain the sidewalks next to their homes. Therefore, if a pedestrian trips and falls because of a defect in such a sidewalk, the homeowner generally can’t be sued.
On the other hand, businesses are responsible to maintain their sidewalks. If someone trips because of a defect in a sidewalk outside of a business, the business is liable. In that case, the injured party can sue the business to recover damages for injuries suffered.
But what about sidewalks outside buildings that are owned by neither a business nor a private individual? Suppose a church does not properly maintain its sidewalk. If someone trips and falls, is the church responsible?
If all the church does is conduct services on its premises, the answer is no. However, if the church conducts business activities on its premises, then the church would be responsible. It would have to pay damages to the injured party, like any other business.
For example, say a church operates a for-profit day care center on its property. If someone, through no fault of his own, trips on a crack in the church’s sidewalk, he is allowed to sue the church. There is at least one restriction, though. If the person was a beneficiary of the good works of the church, then he might lose his right to sue. This restriction would obviously not apply to mere passersby.
The same rules that govern churches also govern other not-for-profit institutions. As long as they do not conduct any commercial activities on their premises, they are not responsible for their sidewalks.
Recently, a judge in Hudson County had to decide an interesting question. A woman named Fatma tripped on a defect in the sidewalk in front of a church. This church did not use its property just for services. It let parish members use its basement to celebrate birthdays and other occasions, in exchange for “donations.” The church also allowed parishioners, and some of their friends and family, to use its parking lot when they shopped, or used public transportation. Again, the church accepted “donations” for the use of its lot, at least in some cases.
Did the church, by, in effect, charging fees for these services, conduct business activities on its premises? If so, Fatma would certainly have the right to sue it.
The judge ruled that these activities were not “commercial.” He noted that, normally, a commercial enterprise does business with the public at large. Here, the benefits in question were only offered to parishioners, their friends and family. Similarly, a commercial enterprise normally has fixed prices. Here, people “paid” different amounts. In some cases, no donations were even made. Therefore, the judge ruled that the money that changed hands was more like money put into a collection tray than like money paid to a business.
Accordingly, the judge dismissed Fatma’s lawsuit. Like any case involving a decision by a trial judge, the ruling is not binding in any future case. A different judge might rule the other way. Only rulings from an appellate court are binding on trial judges.
I should note that even a homeowner can be responsible for sidewalk injuries, in some very limited cases. One such case is where the defect in question was not caused by just ordinary wear and tear. If the homeowner’s careless construction or repair actually caused the defect, the homeowner is responsible. Another such case is where the owner received rental income from tenants on the property (except for two-family owner-occupied homes).
You may ask, could Fatma have sued the city where she fell? In fact, a city can sometimes be sued for injuries caused by a defective sidewalk. The law is somewhat complicated. Much depends on the specific facts. Furthermore, there are some significant restrictions placed on such lawsuits, even when permitted. You wouldn’t expect the government to play by the rules that everyone else has to, now would you?