County Immune from Negligence Claim for Fall in Parking Lot Based upon Common Law Snow Removal Immunity

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Plaintiff Miguelina Hernandez was injured when she slipped and fell on snow and ice while walking in the parking lot of the Raritan Bay Mental Health Center, which is owned and operated by Middlesex County. The trial court found that the defendants, as public entities, were shielded from liability under the common law snow removal immunity and granted summary judgment, dismissing the complaint. In Hernandez v. County of Middlesex, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2041 (App. Div. Aug. 18, 2014), the plaintiff, however, argued that the immunity should be unavailable based upon the Bligen v. Jersey City Housing Authority exception.

In Bligen, the Supreme Court created an exception to this snow removal immunity. The plaintiff had fallen in the driveway of the Jersey City Housing Authority. The Court found that the Housing Authority, as a municipal landlord, owed the same duty of care as a private landlord. Thus, the Court held that the Housing Authority was not immunized from liability for failing to prevent foreseeable injuries, including those caused by snow or ice. The Court also recognized that the property of the Housing Authority was limited and finite, making the removal of snow and ice from its property “relatively manageable.”

In Hernandez, the plaintiff argued that because the parking lot area adjacent to the Health Center was also limited and finite, the defendants should not be permitted to utilize the common law snow removal immunity to protect them from liability. However, it was not disputed that the County actually owns many other properties, in addition to the Health Center.

The Appellate Division noted that it would be “impractical and prohibitively costly” to require the County to remove all snow and ice from its driveways, parking lots, and walkways.” Further, the court stated that the Health Center was neither a public housing authority, nor a municipal landlord.

Thus, the Appellate Division found that the narrow exception to the snow removal immunity created in the Bligen case did not apply. Hence, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s order finding that the public entity defendants were immune from liability.