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Municipality Not Entitled To Weather Or Snow Removal Immunities If Accident Resulted From Other Causes

Plaintiff Barbara Santopietro alleged that she fell on black ice on the roadway in front of her home in the Borough of Union Beach.  Her husband Gabriel asserted that whenever it rained, large pools of stagnant water formed in front of their home, which he reported to the Borough.  The issue in Santopietro v. Borough of Union Beach, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1551 (App. Div. July 8, 2019) was whether the Borough was entitled to common law snow removal immunity and/or weather immunity under the Tort Claims Act to avoid liability for the plaintiff’s fall if the fall occurred due to ice forming from causes other than a snowstorm.

After the plaintiff’s husband complained to the Department of Public Works about the pools of stagnant water that reoccurred on his street after a rainfall, their road was milled by the Borough.  As a result of these efforts, the reoccurring pooling problem was temporarily eliminated.  The milled road then directed water to a sewer grate, which eliminated the ponding.

About two years later, the road was repaved following the installation of a water main and the pooling in front of their home came back.  There was no drain, and according to Gabriel, it would get bigger and bigger, now coming up their driveway and into their front yard.  Plaintiff fell on black ice while walking to her car and suffered injuries that she claims were caused by this “dangerous condition.”

The Borough argued to the trial court that it had common law snow removal immunity and/or weather immunity under the Tort Claims Act.  Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:4-7, public entities have immunity “for an injury caused solely by the effect on the use of streets and highways of weather conditions.”  Also, under the Miehl v. Darpino case, the courts recognize immunity for injuries caused by the snow removal activities of public entities.

The Appellate Division, however noted that the weather immunity statute (N.J.S.A. 59:4-7) did not apply in cases where injuries were allegedly caused by a combination of weather and other factors.  Also, the common law snow removal immunity cases consider claims solely based upon negligent snow removal, independent of any other cause.  If there was conduct that was unrelated to the snow removal activity, the court noted that the cause of action could still be maintained despite this common law immunity.

In this case, the Borough contended that it had snowed two or three days before the plaintiff’s accident and the plaintiff did not observe any water on the ground that morning. The plaintiffs produced an expert report as to the improper road re-pavement after the water line installation. The report claimed that the repaving worsened the water accumulation problem in front of the plaintiff’s home and that the municipality failed to address the flooding and draining problem caused by the improper slope, which lead to the icy condition on the roadway and the plaintiff’s fall.

The Borough argued that it appeared that plaintiff slipped and fell on black ice, which was a result of melting and re-freezing after the Borough’s snowplow plowed the roadway a few days prior to her accident.

The plaintiff’s version, however, was that the sheet of ice was as a result of the pooling on the street that was not resolved by the Borough, as opposed to the result of melting and re-freezing.

The Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiffs that the trial court erred when it held that the Borough enjoyed common law snow removal immunity.  The evidence showed a possible cause for the plaintiff’s injuries other than the Borough’s snow removal efforts.  Not only would the Borough not be afforded immunity under the common law but also it would not have immunity under the Tort Claims Act weather immunity defense.

However, there was no evidence on the record that the Borough had any notice of the icy condition prior to the accident. Under the Tort Claims Act, the plaintiffs were required to establish that the road was in a dangerous condition and that the Borough had actual or constructive notice of this condition within a sufficient amount of time to take protective measures.

Even though the plaintiff’s husband may have complained to the Borough’s mayor that there was still water in front of their house after it was re-paved and that a neighbor may have also informed the mayor about the flooding in front of the house, the notices to the Borough were not about the formation of black ice.  Rather, they were about flooding after a rainfall.  The plaintiff did not slip on a large accumulation of frozen water.  Rather, she slipped on a thin coating of black ice.

Hence, the Appellate Division found that these alleged verbal complaints by the plaintiff’s husband and his neighbor did not put the Borough on notice of the condition that caused the plaintiff’s fall.  Therefore, the Appellate Division did find that the Borough was immune after all, based upon the lack of notice, and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Borough.

 


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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