In Mohamed v. Iglesia Evangelica Oasis de Salvacion (2012 WL 931981), the Appellate Division held that the trial court had prematurely granted summary judgment on behalf of Iglesia Evangelica in connection with an accident arising on a sidewalk adjacent to their property. In this matter, plaintiff was walking on the sidewalk adjacent to the church when she stepped in a depression and fell. Plaintiff sued the church for personal injuries arising out of her fall. Prior to the expiration of the discovery end date, the church moved for summary judgment on the basis that as a nonprofit organization, it could not be held liable for the accident. The trial court held that under applicable law, the church was a nonprofit organization and as such summary judgment was appropriate as it owed not duty to the plaintiff. On appeal, the court ruled that the granting of summary judgment should not have occurred and remanded the case to the trial court.
Generally New Jersey law provides that “absent negligent construction or repair, a landowner does not owe a duty of care to a pedestrian injured as a result of the condition of the sidewalk abutting the landowner’s property.” However, an exception to the no-liability rule applies to commercial landowners. Specifically, commercial landowners owe a duty to reasonably maintain the sidewalk abutting their property. If they fail to do so, the property owner can be held liable for injuries that occur on the sidewalk. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that when a property owner is truly nonprofit, this standard of care does not apply. However, in determining if the property owner is nonprofit, the court must look to the nature of the use of the property, not the nature of the ownership. Specifically, the Court has established that “the status of a nonprofit organization as religious or charitable is not crucial to a determination of whether the property is commercial or residential.” Instead, “it is the use of the property that determines its classification for the purposes of abutting sidewalk liability.”
Discovery in the Mohamed case revealed that the church would allow members and non-members to utilize its parking lot for commuting purposes. The church would receive donations for such usage. Additionally, the Church kept two ledgers for those donations, one for members of the church and the other for nonmembers. It was estimated that the church received approximately $1,000 in donations from the use of the parking lot. Further, the church allowed its members to use its basement hall for parties. Again, individuals utilizing the hall would give a donation of approximately $300 to the church.
In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division cited cases in which nonprofit organizations owned property, but utilized a portion of their property for commercial activities. For example, the Appellate Division noted the case in which a religious institution operated a private school on its property. In such a circumstance, the Court ruled that the church was a “commercial landowner” and could be held responsible for a slip and fall on ice on the sidewalk abutting their property. In another case, the court held that a church was a “commercial landowner” when it provided rental apartments for needy families. Despite charging rent under fair market value and no rent at all, the court ruled that the church could be held liable for an accident which occurred on a sidewalk which abutted their property.
The ruling in Mohamed reaffirms precedent that despite holding a nonprofit or charitable designation, a property owner can still be held liable for accidents which occur on an abutting sidewalk. In determining whether such a landowner is exposed to liability does not rest on its designation. Instead, an evaluation must be undertaken to determine if the property owner engages in conduct on the property which made be deemed a commercial exercise. If the property owner does engage in commercial conduct, case law establishes that liability may attach for accidents on adjacent sidewalks.