A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Church Found Not Liable for Fall on Public Sidewalk in Front of Vacant Church Property

By on May 25, 2018 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Timothy Ellis fell on a public sidewalk in front of a vacant church owned by defendant Hilton United Methodist Church. Plaintiff argued that the church should be liable for his injuries suffered in the fall because its property should be deemed a “commercial” property for purposes of assessing liability. In the published decision of Ellis v.  Hilton United Methodist Church, 2018 N.J. Super. LEXIS 82 (May 22, 2018), the Appellate Division ruled that a vacant church did not lose its status as a noncommercial property, which is not subject to a commercial property’s sidewalk liability.

Plaintiff Ellis had slipped and fell on the public sidewalk abutting the defendant church’s premises. He alleged that he fell because the sidewalk was uneven and broken. The church had not been in operation for about 2 years before the fall occurred. The plaintiff argued that it should be classified as a “commercial” property because the property was no longer being used for any religious or charitable purposes. Hence, he argued that it should be subject to a commercial owner’s responsibility to maintain the adjoining public sidewalk.

At the trial court level, the court dismissed the case. The trial court judge denied the plaintiff’s application to classify the defendant’s vacant property as “commercial.”

The Appellate Division affirmed the decision. It noted that the church property was not a commercial building and had never been used as a commercial building. Since it stopped functioning as a church, it was not open to the general public. Just because it maintained liability insurance like a commercial property owner, that did not convert the church to a commercial property.

The Court reaffirmed its prior decisions that vacant property that had not been put to commercial use is not subject to sidewalk liability. The Appellate Division found that changing noncommercial property, such as a church used for religious purposes, to a “no use at all” property does not result in the imposition of sidewalk liability upon such property owner.

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Betsy G. Ramos

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 25 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.

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