Gross Negligence Standard and its Implications on Personal Injury Cases and HOAs in NJ

The New Jersey Appellate Court recently held that a condominium association was not grossly negligent in a slip and fall incident that occurred in one of its common areas. Diane Kechejian (“Kechejian”) slipped on ice around 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning while she was walking from the condominium association’s (“Association”) parking garage to her condo. She sued the Association for the injuries that resulted from the fall.

Notably, a weather report indicated that there was freezing rain and sleet between 7:46 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. on the date of the incident, about an hour before Kechejian fell. The sleet continued all day until about 3:00 p.m.

The Association’s by-laws stated that it would not be held liable in any civil suit for damages that resulted from bodily injury in the common areas of the condominium complex. However, the by-laws had a provision where the Association could be held liable if the bodily injury resulted from a “willful, wanton, or grossly negligent act of commission or omission.” Therefore, in order to establish a claim, Kechejian was required to show that the Association was grossly negligent, which has a higher standard than negligence.

Gross negligence is defined as “the failure to exercise slight care or diligence,” or “more than inattention or mistaken judgment.” Negligence is the mere failure to use reasonable care. The New Jersey Appellate Court reviewed the facts on the record in order to determine if the Association could be held liable under the gross negligence standard.

During the winter months, the Association contracted with a snow removal company to clear any snow and ice on the premises. The snow removal company was not on site during weekends, and would only come to the complex if the Association’s security guard contacted them to report inclement weather. The security guard contacted the snow removal company around 10:14 a.m. on Sunday morning to alert them about the conditions on the date of the incident.

The Appellate Court held that Kechejian did not establish a claim for gross negligence based on the facts above. The Association had a procedure for snow removal on the weekends, which was followed on the date of the incident. The court also noted that it was sleeting from early morning to late afternoon, so it was doubtful whether the snow company would have arrived in time to prevent Kechejian’s fall or if their removal services would have even made a difference, considering the inclement conditions lasted continuously throughout the day.

The existence of a liability provision in the Association’s by-laws ensured that they would be protected from lawsuits resulting from mere negligence. In this case, the Association avoided liability because of the heightened standard that was imposed on Kechejian.

If you have recently been injured in a slip and fall incident in your condominium complex, it is advisable to check the by-laws in order to verify your association has a similar provision that protects against liability. Please feel free to contact Ward, Shindle and Hall if you need assistance with a personal injury matter, if you have additional questions about this case, or if you need help with any other legal matter.