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Kernor v. New Jersey Bell Telephone Co.

Decided: October 10, 1972.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, Justices Jacobs, Proctor, Hall and Mountain and Judges Conford and Sullivan. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Sullivan, P.J.A.D., Temporarily Assigned.


Plaintiff Mary R. Kernor sued for serious injuries she received in a fall on a public sidewalk on Richards Avenue in Dover, N.J. The sidewalk abutted a parking lot used and maintained by defendant New Jersey Bell Telephone Co., Inc. (Bell). Following a jury trial plaintiff, and her husband suing per quod were awarded damages totalling $58,267 and costs against Bell. On appeal, the Appellate Division in an unreported opinion held that Bell's motions for dismissal, made during trial and following the jury verdict, should have been granted in that plaintiffs had failed to prove a prima facie case of liability. The judgment in favor of plaintiffs was reversed and the matter remanded for entry of judgment in favor of defendant. We granted certification. 60 N.J. 195 (1972).

For reasons hereinafter stated we conclude that a prima facie case of liability as to Bell was presented, and that the judgment in favor of plaintiffs should be reinstated.

The sidewalk in question runs along the northerly side of Richards Avenue on municipally owned land, being a part of the public right of way. It was installed by the then abutting property owner Capo at the direction of the Town of Dover some 18 years prior to plaintiff's accident. The paved sidewalk is seven and one-half feet in width and extends to the curbline of Richards Avenue.

The Capo property, located on the northwest corner of Essex Street and Richards Avenue, had a two-family house on it with a garage in the rear. Access to the garage was from Richards Avenue so that when the sidewalk in question was installed a driveway cut or apron was built into the sidewalk. The sidewalk is seven inches higher than the street level, and the driveway cut, some 12 feet wide with a slope of 2-1/4 inches per foot, extends 2 feet 10 inches from the street into the sidewalk at which point it reaches the sidewalk level.

Capo sold the property in 1962 and it eventually came into the ownership of David Green and Albert A. Cuneo.

Bell leased the property in July 1963 and proceeded to demolish the house and garage thereon in order to use the land as a parking lot for its adjacent business office.*fn1 After the lot was cleared it was paved with blacktop and a new driveway opening into Essex Street was constructed. The old (Capo) driveway was closed off by the placing of wheel stops along the Richards Avenue side of the parking lot some two feet back from the sidewalk. However, the original driveway cut in the sidewalk was left in its existing condition.

In connection with the construction of the new entrance on Essex Street, two parking meters on that street were removed. At about the same time a parking space was marked off on Richards Avenue in front of the old driveway entrance and a new parking meter was installed in a corner of the old driveway cut about 23 inches in from the curb. The new meter became part of a line of parking meters along that side of the street.

On November 21, 1965, Mrs. Kernor, on her way to church with her husband and three children, was walking along the sidewalk on the northerly side of Richards Avenue. The family was proceeding in an easterly direction. Mrs. Kernor, who was walking with her daughter, was on the right closest to the curb. Just as she passed the parking meter installed in the corner of the old driveway cut her right foot went into the depression and she fell.

At the trial, Mrs. Kernor testified that she did not see the depression prior to her fall and did not know it was there. She was aware of the row of parking meters along the street as well as the Bell parking lot which was full of cars. She did not remember if there was a car parked on Richards Avenue adjacent to where she fell.

Suit was commenced against Greene and Cuneo the owners, Bell the tenant, and the Town of Dover. (Two other defendants were originally joined but were let out by stipulation in November, 1967.) Prior to trial the Town of Dover settled with plaintiffs. During trial and with plaintiffs' consent, the case was dismissed with prejudice as to Greene and Cuneo, leaving Bell as the sole remaining defendant. The jury returned a verdict against Bell and in favor of Mrs. Kernor for $41,500, and Mr. Kernor for $16,767. By answer to ...

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