The Snowball Effect of the Common Law Snow and Ice Removal Immunity May Be About to Lose Momentum

By Jessica M. Anderson, Esq.

Our Legislature passed the New Jersey Tort Claims Act over forty years ago to replace and reestablish the common law rule immunizing public entities from liability for personal injury.  Although the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity was eroded to some extent by the Tort Claims Act, common law immunity for snow removal survived the enactment of our legislation.

Until roughly fifteen years ago, the majority of published cases applied the common law snow and ice removal immunity to municipalities.  However, in the 1999 Appellate decision Sykes v. Rutgers, 308 N.J. Super. 265 (App. Div. 1998), the Appellate Division held that Rutgers University was immune when a student slipped and fell on an accumulation of ice in the parking lot.  In 2001, the Sports and Exposition Authority was also found immune in the matter, O’Connell v. Sports & Exp. Auth., 337 N.J. Super. 122 (App. Div. 2001), certif. denied, 168 N.J. 293 (2001), where Plaintiff, who was attending a football game at Giants Stadium, fell on accumulated ice near the stadium seats and steps.  In 2006, UMDNJ was found immune in the unpublished decision, Smith v. University of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 2006 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 755 (App. Div. January 9, 2006), where Plaintiff slipped and fell on refrozen ice piled next to the elevator entrance.

In the recent unpublished Appellate decision, Stair v. New Jersey Transit Inc., 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 950 (App. Div. April 24, 2015), in which I successfully represented Defendant, the Appellate Division against extended the common law snow and ice removal immunity by applying it to New Jersey Transit.  In this case, Plaintiff claimed he was injured when he slipped and fell on black ice while walking on the Woodbridge train station platform.  Of significant note were the Appellate Division’s comments emphasizing the importance of the immunity in light of the multitude of claims that could be filed after every snowstorm, the substantial cost of defending such claims, and the obvious risk an individual takes when traveling in winter weather conditions.

Although the common law snow and ice removal immunity has continued to grow in strength over the past forty years, the recent concurring decision by the Honorable Jack Sabatino in Rajohn Mann v. New Jersey Transit Corporation, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2804 (App. Div. December 4, 2015), invites the Supreme Court to reconsider the immunity.  Judge Sabatino discusses at length how absolute immunity might be sufficiently anachronistic in light of the additional safeguards provided by the Tort Claims Act.  He also notes that some other states, such as New York, do not confer absolute immunity upon public entities for negligent snow or ice removal.