A personal accident attorney gets many calls from people injured on sidewalks. Usually, there is some defect on the sidewalk that causes the victim to trip and fall.
Under New Jersey law, an owner of a residential property is generally not responsible for such accidents on the sidewalks adjacent to their property. Thus, a victim can’t usually sue a homeowner for an injury from a fall on their sidewalk. (There are some exceptions, particularly if the house in question is multi-unit.)
However, commercial property owners are generally responsible for injuries in New Jersey if someone falls because of a defect on an adjacent sidewalk. Commercial property includes malls, stores, office buildings, etc.
But what about houses of worship, such as churches, mosques, temples and synagogues? Are they commercial or residential?
Businesses, But Not Churches, Responsible for Sidewalk Defects
Generally, houses of worship are considered non-commercial. Thus, a personal accident attorney usually can’t sue a house of worship on account of a defective sidewalk. An exception, however, occurs if the house of worship is operating a business on its premises. For example, if a church is operating a thrift shop, and fails to properly maintain the adjacent sidewalk, it will likely be responsible for any injury befalling someone who trips on the sidewalk.
A recent case, Ellis v. Hilton United Methodist Church, discussed the question of what happens if a church has abandoned a building, but still remains in existence. If a commercial business abandons a property, it is still responsible for sidewalk defects as long as it owns the property. But if a house of worship abandons a property, and no longer uses it for services, does it become liable for sidewalk accident injuries?
The appellate court in Ellis case answered no. Once a church uses a property for non-commercial religious purposes, it typically remains exempt from sidewalk accident liability. For as long as the religious institution owns it.
Do you think it is fair that the judges exempted the church from sidewalk slip and fall liability? I, for one, don’t.
As with most legal rulings, there may be exceptions. Consult a personal accident attorney if you ever trip and fall on a sidewalk, whether near a church or not.