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Residential Owner of Three Family Apartment Building Found Not to be Liable for Fall on Adjoining Public Sidewalk

By on October 30, 2020 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Gerard Rienzi, while an inspector for Union City, fell on the public sidewalk in front of the three family apartment building owned by defendant Vincent Giacoman. Plaintiff claimed to have suffered injuries when he fell in a hole in the sidewalk adjacent to Giacoman’s building. The issue in Rienzi v. Giacoman, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2036 (App. Div. Oct. 26, 2020) was whether defendant’s building should be considered to be commercial versus residential and, as such, whether the defendant had a duty to maintain the sidewalk.

Giacoman’s three family building was located in a neighborhood classified as commercial but his property was zoned as residential. At the time plaintiff fell, Giacoman and his brothers lived in the first floor apartment, while he rented the other two apartments to non-relatives. At deposition, Giacoman testified that the rental income he received barely covered his expenses on the property.

On the trial court level, the judge found that the property was not rented to a commercial entity, nor did Giacoman have anyone manage the property on his behalf. Giacoman had lived continuously at the property since he bought it. She concluded that this property qualified as a residential property and, hence, Giacoman was entitled to summary judgment dismissing the case.

On appeal, the Appellate Division cited to the well-established New Jersey law that residential property owners are not liable for sidewalk injuries. The Court also noted that “[c]onversely, commercial property owners have a duty to maintain sidewalks that abut their property and are liable for injuries suffered as a result of their negligent failure to do so.”

The Court agreed with the trial court’s ruling, finding that the predominant use of the property was as a place of residence. It was purchased always with the intent that the defendant would live at the property and rent the other two units and he has continued to live there since its purchase. No commercial entities have ever rented the property. Further, any profit realized from the rental was minimal. Without the rent from the other two units to apply to the mortgage and other carrying expenses, living in Hudson County would be unaffordable.

The Appellate Division found no basis to overturn the trial court’s summary judgment ruling. The plaintiff failed to meet his burden to establish that the property was commercial in nature. Rather, the property was used for residential purposes, entitling the defendant to sidewalk immunity for plaintiff’s fall on the public sidewalk.

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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.

For the years 2020 and 2021, 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.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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