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Terrey v. Sheridan Gardens Inc.

Decided: November 2, 1978.

IRENE M. TERREY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SHERIDAN GARDENS, INC., A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.

Halpern and Antell. The opinion of the court was delivered by Halpern, P.J.A.D.

Halpern

This appeal presents the issue of whether the trial judge erred in dismissing plaintiff's complaint at the close of her proofs on liability.

The operative facts, as gleaned from the testimony of plaintiff and her daughter and the interrogatories read into evidence, are as follows. On October 31, 1973 plaintiff, a 54-year-old widow, was a tenant in a garden-apartment multiple-dwelling complex consisting of four separate apartments, owned and operated by defendant corporation. Her only means of access to the street from her apartment was by way of outside steps exposed to the weather, which were admittedly under the control of defendant. On the day in question she left her apartment, walked across a platform or stoop landing, tried but was unable to hold a handrail because a thorn-filled rose bush had grown over it, slipped on the top step which was filled with wet flattened leaves, fell to the sidewalk and sustained injuries. Defendant, in its answers to interrogatories, admitted it maintained no established procedure to inspect or maintain the steps and that the steps were not regularly patrolled, supervised or cleaned by defendant or its agents.

When defendant moved for an involuntary dismissal at the end of plaintiff's proofs, she "was entitled to the benefit of all of the favorable inferences which might reasonably be drawn from the testimony which she had presented." Taylor v. N.J. Highway Auth. , 22 N.J. 454, 459 (1956); Ferdinand v. Agricultural Ins. Co. of Watertown, N.Y. , 22 N.J. 482, 494 (1956). The test has also been stated thusly:

In the case of motions for involuntary dismissal, the test is, as set forth in R. 4:37-2(b) and equally applicable to motions for judgment, whether "the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in * * * favor" of the party opposing the motion, i.e., if, accepting as true all the evidence which supports the position of the party defending against the motion and according him the benefit of all inferences which can reasonably and legitimately be deduced therefrom, reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied. Bozza v. Vornado, Inc. , 42 N.J. 355 (1964); Bell v. Eastern Beef Co. , 42 N.J. 126 (1964); Franklin Discount Co. v. Ford , 27 N.J. 473, 490 (1958). The point is that the judicial function here is quite a mechanical one. The trial court is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent (beyond a scintilla) of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to the party opposing the motion. [ Dolson v. Anastasia , 55 N.J. 2, at 5-6 (1969)]

A landlord is not an insurer for the safety of his tenants, but he is under a legal duty to maintain a common stairway under his control reasonably fit for use by occupants of the premises and by others lawfully thereon. Coleman v. Steinberg , 54 N.J. 58, 63 (1969); Taylor v. N.J. Highway Auth., supra , 22 N.J. at 461. This common law duty has been supplemented and broadened by the Tenement House Act (N.J.S.A. 55:1-1 et seq.) now embodied in the Hotels and Multiple Dwelling Act (N.J.S.A. 55:13A-1 et seq.) The latter statute was enacted in 1967 as remedial legislation to protect the health and welfare of the public, to be sure they have decent, standard and safe dwelling units. We are directed to liberally construe the statute so as to effectuate its purposes. N.J.S.A. 55:13A-2. The premises here in question are within the purview of the statute by virtue of N.J.S.A. 55:13A-3(k) since they contain more than three separate dwelling units.

The Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, who is named in the statute as the operative head of the department, is directed by N.J.S.A. 55:13A-7 to "issue and promulgate * * * such regulations as he may deem necessary to assure that any * * * multiple dwelling will be * * * maintained in such manner as is consistent with, and

will protect the health, safety and welfare of the occupants * * *." The statute further directs that such regulations shall include standards for the maintenance of such areas as "(b) Methods of egress, including * * * independent stairways, and handrails, railings, brackets, braces and landing platforms thereon, additional stairways, and treads, winders, and risers thereof, entrances and ramps, * * * (v) Entrances and ramps."

As directed by the above statute, the Commissioner promulgated rules, which were in effect when plaintiff allegedly fell and which imposed nondelegable duties upon landlords. The sections of the rules ...


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