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Homeowner Found Not Liable for Fall on Sidewalk Due to Spiky Seed Pods

By on December 22, 2016 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Katherine Neilson was walking on a sidewalk adjoining the residential property owned by the defendant Antoinette Dunn when she fell on a spiky seed pod, suffering injury. The seed pod came from sweetgum trees located on defendant’s property. In Neilson v. Dunn, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2668 (App. Div. December 5, 2016), plaintiff Neilson claimed that defendant’s sweet gum trees created a dangerous condition and that defendant Dunn should be liable for her injuries.

Defendant’s sweetgum trees drop their fruit in the form of spikey seed pods onto her property and sidewalk. She hired a lawn maintenance contractor who, as part of his services, periodically removed the pods. The last cleanup was about 2 months before plaintiff’s fall. Plaintiff lived next door to the defendant and was aware of the seed pods on the sidewalk.

Defendant was able to obtain a dismissal via summary judgment on the trial court level. She successfully argued that she did not create or exacerbate a dangerous condition. The seed pod accumulation was a natural condition, over which she had no control, and that she acted as a reasonable landowner, hiring a lawn maintenance service to periodically clean up debris on her lawn and sidewalk.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the defendant had a duty to ensure her property and the adjacent sidewalk were free of the seed pods that fell from her trees and her failure to do so created a hazardous condition. As a result, she contended that the defendant should be liable for her injuries suffered from falling on the seed pods.

The Appellate Division reiterated the general common law principles under New Jersey law concerning the limited liability for homeowners for failure to maintain an adjacent public sidewalk. If the hazardous condition is natural, as opposed to artificial, the property owner has no liability for the hazard. An exception to this rule would be if the property owner’s affirmative act caused the problem with the sidewalk.

Here, the Court noted that the sweetgum trees had existed on defendant’s property over fifty years ago before the defendant purchased the property. The trees’ natural cycle included the growth of fruit in the nature of spiky seed pods, which then fell naturally to the ground. The Court found that the defendant did not take any affirmative act to cause or exacerbate the natural condition. To the contrary, the defendant arranged for a lawn service to maintain her property, including the removal of the pods. As a result, the Appellate Division held that the defendant was not liable for any consequences of the natural occurrence of the seed pods being scattered on the ground and upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant homeowner.


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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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