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School Board Found Not Liable for Injury that Occurred Due to Fall from Slope in Property

Plaintiff Patricia Eak stumbled while walking down a slope at Central Regional High School to watch her son play baseball on the junior varsity field. As a result, she fell and broke her ankle. In Eak v. Central Regional School District, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 685 (App. Div. March 26, 2019), the issue was whether the unimproved grassy slope of the field could constitute a dangerous condition under the Tort Claims Act.

Plaintiff arrived at the school, parked in an adjacent lot to the field, crossing the parking lot and a driveway. Next, she stepped over a curb, onto a grassy downward slope, and began walking toward the bleachers on the third-base side. As she walked down the slope, the plaintiff stumbled and broke her ankle.

The plaintiff filed suit against the school and the Board of Education for her injuries. At the trial court level, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. This appeal ensued with the plaintiff claiming that it should have been a jury question whether the property was a “dangerous condition” under the Tort Claims Act. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court and affirmed the order granting summary judgment.

The Court noted that the grassy area where plaintiff fell was an unimproved condition of the school’s property. As such, the immunity under N.J.S.A 59:4-8 would apply. Pursuant to that provision: “[n]either a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by a condition of any unimproved public property….” Under Troth v. State, 117 N.J. 258, 269-70 (1989), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that public property is improved “when there has been substantial physical modification of the property from its natural state, and when the physical change creates hazards that did not previously exist and that require management by the public entity”.

While the playing fields and some of the surrounding areas had been improved through the addition of steps and walkways to the fields, the Court found that no similar changes to the grounds between the parking lot and the junior varsity field had been made. Making improvements elsewhere did not transform the unimproved area into an improved area.

Plaintiff was injured on a slope which was a natural part of the school’s landscape. Hence, the Appellate Division found that no liability attached to the defendants for this unimproved portion of its property.

The plaintiff also argued that the slope constituted a dangerous condition under N.J.S.A. 59:4-2.  To establish liability via this provision, the plaintiff must show that a public employee either created the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice of the condition in time to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. Further, the plaintiff must show that any steps taken by the public entity to protect against the dangerous condition were palpably unreasonable.

While the plaintiff did provide an expert report, the expert did not opine that the condition of the property was dangerous, only that it could have been made safer. Further, while the expert made reference to standards for accessible design enacted pursuant to the ADA, claiming that the degree of incline was improper, the Court noted that the plaintiff did not claim to be disabled and the expert did not assert that the degree of the incline was dangerous.

The Appellate Division pointed out that it was being asked to consider unimproved, not improved property, and the “open and obvious” gentle slope leading to this ballfield was not dangerous. Even if there was some notice to the school district of the alleged dangerous propensity, “it cannot be said that defendants’ failure to do anything to change the contour of the property or install steps or railings was palpably unreasonable.”

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Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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