School Board Found Not Liable for Fall on School Property

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Laurie Ortiz Guerrero sued defendant Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education due to a fall on an icy school walkway. Plaintiff argued that the exception to the immunity provisions in the Tort Claims Act, as set forth in the New Jersey Supreme Court in Bligen v. Jersey City Housing Authority applied to the facts. In Guerrero v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1971 (Aug. 8, 2014 App. Div.), the Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

Plaintiff, while walking between classes, decided to go outside to avoid the crowded hallways. As plaintiff exited the building, she noticed that it was icy everywhere but she was unable to get back into the building. She fell on the ice, breaking her ankle and lower leg.

Plaintiff contended that the defendant’s employees were negligent in allowing the property to contain a dangerous condition at the time of her accident. Further, she contended the Bligen exception applied and, thus, the defendant could not claim immunity for snow removal activities.

Bligen had modified the well-established common law public entity immunity for snow removal activities as to a municipal landlord. In Bligen, a tenant fell on an icy driveway of a public housing authority. The court deemed a public housing authority to have the same standard of care to their tenants as did other commercial landlord and did not permit the common law snow removal activity to shield the conduct of the defendant housing authority.

Plaintiff argued that a public school should be subject to the same responsibility as a housing authority. Even though the school was a smaller, self-contained area, this argument ignored the underpinnings of Bligen, which related only to a municipal landlord’s common law tort liability. Without a clearly established landlord-tenant relationship, the courts have refused to classify a public entity as akin to a commercial landlord to fit it within the Bligen exception.

Hence, the Appellate Division refused to apply the Bligen exception and found that the defendant Board of Education remained immune from this suit based upon the common law snow removal immunity.