In a published decision, the Appellate Division considered appeals from two cases involving motor vehicle accidents that occurred about one year apart at about the same location under similar circumstances. In both cases, a driver traveling westbound on Route 322 in Folsom, New Jersey made an illegal left turn in the direction of one of two driveway entrances to a Wawa and struck a motorcycle traveling eastbound on the highway. The issue in Buddy v. Knapp, 2021 N.J. Super. LEXIS 111 (App. Div. Aug. 17, 2021) was whether Wawa, as the operator of the convenience store in which the motor vehicles were attempting to turn, and the State of New Jersey, which owned the highway and the land on which the driveway entrances were situated could be found negligent for these two motor vehicle accidents.
In the first accident, the motorcycle driver was killed and his wife, a passenger, was seriously injured. In the second accident, the motorcycle driver was seriously injured. In both cases, the injured parties and the Estate of the decedent sued the Wawa, as the owner of the store, and the State of New Jersey, as the owner of the highway and land on which the store’s driveway entrances were situated.
Wawa owned and operated the convenience store on Route 322, also known as the Black Horse Pike, in Folsom at the intersection of Cains Mill Road. That intersection was controlled by a traffic light. At the location of the store, Route 322 is a four lane State highway, with two eastbound and two westbound lanes which are separated by two sets of solid double yellow lines.
The store was located on the eastbound side of the highway and was east of the intersection. The store had two driveway entrances into its lot on the eastbound side of the highway. It was illegal for the westbound vehicles to make a left turn and cross the double yellow lines and the eastbound lanes to access Wawa’s driveways.
On the other side of the highway, a vehicle traveling westbound would encounter the entrance to a jug handle. That jug handle would allow vehicles to access the Cains Mill Road intersection with Route 322 and, when the light permitted, to cross Route 322, turn eastbound on the highway, where a few car lengths from the intersection, the driver could access the Wawa driveway entrances. At the time of the collision, there was a sign on the westbound side of Route 322, east of the Wawa and near the entrance to the jug handle stating, “ALL TURNS FROM RIGHT LANE.” This sign was intended to prevent left turns across the highway at and before the intersection with Cains Mill Road.
The Wawa driveway entrances were constructed years ago and were in the State’s right of way. They were considered to have been constructed in accordance with DOT regulations. Wawa was not authorized to modify the driveway entrances or place any signage regulating traffic unless it had permission from the State.
In both of these cases, a motor vehicle driver attempted to make an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway into one of the Wawa driveway entrances. In both occasions, as they were crossing the eastbound lanes, they crashed into a motorcycle, traveling eastbound, causing the collision and the resulting fatality and/or injuries of the motorcycle occupants.
The plaintiffs sued both Wawa and the State as defendants. The claim against Wawa was that it was negligent in creating unsafe driveway entrances to its parking lot and in failing to maintain the premises in the safe condition for its invitees. Further, the plaintiffs claimed that Wawa knew or should have known that its driveway entrances attracted illegal left turns from Route 322 and it should have redesigned its parking lot entrances to discourage left turns, notify the State of the dangerous conditions and/or warned its customers of the dangers of making an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway.
As for the State, the plaintiffs allege that it was negligent in creating an unsafe condition by failing to properly maintain the roadway in a safe condition and “to exercise proper control, supervision, maintenance, repair, and general safe keeping of the roadway, despite the fact that it knew or should have known that a dangerous condition existed in the roadway and in its right-of-way.”
At the trial court level, the court granted summary judgment to both defendants. It rejected plaintiffs’ argument that Wawa violated a duty of care to plaintiffs. It found that the acts of the drivers of the motor vehicles, which were the causes of the accidents, and the collisions, happened in the eastbound lanes of Route 322 and not on Wawa’s property. It noted the longstanding precedent “that a commercial landowner has no duty to regulate or control the conditions of property it does not own.” Thus, the court found that Wawa did not owe a duty to plaintiffs related to the accidents.
Further, the court noted that, in limited circumstances, a commercial landowner’s duty to protect its invitees could extend beyond its premises for activities for which it directly benefits. It was reasonable to conclude that Wawa could have received an economic benefit for drivers accessing its parking lot by making an illegal left turn from the highway, but the court concluded “that westbound drivers were provided a safe path to enter the parking lot through the jug handle, relieving Wawa of any duty to take steps to prevent illegal left turns into its driveway entrances.” Further, the court found that even if the driveway entrances were dangerous conditions of State property, Wawa had no legal duty to report these conditions to governmental entities who would have the authority to remedy them.
As for the State, the trial court concluded that the State was “absolutely immune from liability pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:2-4, for its alleged failure to enforce its regulations, and N.J.S.A. 59:2-5 for permitting decisions concerning the driveway entrances, and N.J.S.A. 59:2-6 for its failure to inspect the driveway entrances.” The court found that the placement of the driveways did not constitute a dangerous condition because if drivers exercise due care, the subject accidents would not be reasonably foreseeable. The court noted that Route 322 was divided by a double solid yellow line prohibiting left hand turns into the subject driveways. Further, the court found that illegally crossing the highway to make the left hand turn was not exercising due care.
This appeal ensued. First, the Appellate Division addressed the claim against Wawa. The court agreed that Wawa did not owe a duty to plaintiffs because their injuries did not occur on Wawa’s premises. The drivers of the motor vehicles that collided with plaintiff’s motorcycles were in the eastbound lanes of Route 322. Although they were headed in the direction of an entrance to the Wawa parking lot, they initiated their illegal left turns on State property and caused injuries to plaintiffs before reaching Wawa’s property.
With respect to the argument that a premises owner may owe a duty of care for an injury off premises, if the source of the injury was a dangerous condition on the premises, the Court also rejected that argument. The Appellate Division found that Wawa did not have a duty of care to prevent the illegal acts of the two motor vehicle drivers on State property. It neither owned nor had control over the eastbound lanes of Route 322, where the other drivers attempted to execute their illegal turns and collided with the plaintiffs’ motorcycles. Further, the Appellate Division noted that the driveway entrances, which plaintiffs allege to be a dangerous condition, were not on Wawa’s premises. Rather, they were situated in the State’s right-of-way and were subject to its sole control.
The Appellate Division also rejected the argument that Wawa had a duty to change its parking lot design or report to the State the need to alter or close the driveway entrances. That would “amount to an expansion of a duty to all commercial landowners along a State highway to prevent motor vehicle violations by potential customers and ameliorate the effects of those violations.”
Further, the Appellate Division rejected the argument that Wawa breached its duty to warm its customers of the dangers of making an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway. The Court noted that it was not clear how such a warning would be delivered to drivers who had not yet reached the store. Further, the Appellate Division declined “to impose on commercial property owners the obligation to warn business patrons of the obvious danger posed by driving over two sets of solid yellow lines to cross the two lanes of opposing traffic on a highway with a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit.”
Next, the Appellate Division turned towards the plaintiffs’ claim against the State of New Jersey. It considered the statutory immunities in the Tort Claims Act that were addressed by the trial court. First, there was N.J.S.A. 59:2-4 in which “a public entity is not liable for any injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt a law or by failing to enforce any law.” The plaintiffs had alleged that it was the State’s alleged inaction in enforcing its regulations related to access violations from public roadways by failing to close the Wawa driveway entrances or otherwise preventing motorists from making illegal left turns to access the parking lot which caused the accident. The plaintiffs’ claim related to the State’s alleged omissions, rather than an affirmative act. Thus, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that enforcement immunity under N.J.S.A. 59:2-4 applied. Thus, the State cannot be held liable for damages for its alleged failure to apply existing or past regulatory requirements to Wawa’s driveway entrances.
The Appellate Division also agreed that the State was not subject to liability for this alleged dangerous condition because a dangerous condition is defined as “a condition of property that causes a substantial risk of injury when such property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.” Here, the trial court had concluded that the absence of due care by the two motor vehicle drivers when using the driveway entrances was determinative of whether the dangerous condition exception applies. As the Supreme Court pointed out in the prior decision of Garrison v. Township of Middletown, if a public entity’s property is dangerous only when used without due care, the property is not in a “dangerous condition.” Whether a member of the public acted with due care on public property would depend upon whether the property was used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.
The Appellate Division supported the trial court’s conclusion that the driveway entrances did not post a substantial risk of injury when used with due care in a matter in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used. The driveway entrances were not intended to be used for illegal left turns by westbound drivers on Route 322. The Court pointed out that “[b]reaking the law by crossing two sets of yellow lines to cross two lanes of opposing highway traffic to access the driveway entrances is not the exercise of due care.” The Appellate Division noted this risk of danger created by such a highly dangerous maneuver was “objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with the intended use of the driveway entrances, which are designed to permit eastbound motorists to enter the Wawa parking lot.”
Hence, the Appellate Division affirmed these summary judgment orders granted by the trial court to the State and to Wawa. The Appellate Division recognized the “tragic nature” of these accidents caused by “law-breaking drivers,” but it noted that it could “discern no legal basis to impose liability on the defendants.”
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 30 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.