A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Church Found Immune from Liability for Fall on Sidewalk

By on April 15, 2016 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Elizabeth Rockhill slipped and fell on a sidewalk adjacent to the property owned by the Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church. She sued the church, alleging that it negligently maintained the sidewalk and that was the cause of her injuries. In Rockhill v. Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 683 (App. Div. March 30, 2016), the plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her complaint. The plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in refusing to classify the use of its property as “commercial,” which would have imposed a duty upon the church to maintain the sidewalk.

Prior to her fall, the church’s property had been used exclusively for the religious purposes of its congregation. The year after the accident, a youth dance group requested permission to use the church’s basement in exchange for the payment of $75 per use. It used the basement once per week for 6 weeks. It is undisputed that prior to this group using the basement, the church had never leased any portion of its property to anyone.

The case law is well settled as to the determination of liability for injuries caused by a failure to maintain a public sidewalk. Commercial property owners are liable for injuries on abutting sidewalks due to the negligent failure to maintain the sidewalk in good condition. However, residential owners are not liable for public sidewalk injuries.

To determine whether the property is commercial or residential, the court must address the nature of the ownership and will consider whether the property is owned for investment or business purposes. If the property is owned by a religious organization, the court will look at the nature of the use of the property and not the nature of the ownership.

In Rockhill, it was undisputed that the church was a nonprofit religious organization that owned the property abutting the sidewalk upon which the plaintiff fell and was injured. It was also undisputed that, at all times prior to the accident, the church used its property exclusively for religious purposes and for no commercial purposes at all.

Hence, the Appellate Division held that these undisputed facts showed that the church was not a commercial user of its property and that the trial court properly concluded that the church was entitled to a dismissal as a matter of law.

The Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the church’s use of its property should be deemed commercial because it might have rented its property prior to the accident if a prospective lessee made an acceptable offer. The court found this argument to be too speculative.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that renting the property for the first time about one year after the accident required that the property be classified as commercial at the time of the accident. It found that the subsequent use of the property was not relevant to a determination of its liability.


About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020-2023, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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