On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-13703-04.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges A. A. Rodríguez, Collester and C. S. Fisher.
Plaintiff Randy Perry, a horse trainer, was injured when he slipped and fell on an accumulation of ice in front of a door to one of the barns in the stable area of the Meadowlands Racetrack complex. Perry sued a public entity, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (Authority), the owner and operator of the track. Perry alleged that the Authority had improperly maintained the barn drainage system, thereby causing a "dangerous condition" pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:4-2, a section of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3. The jury returned a verdict in Perry's favor and awarded him $1.7 million in damages. On appeal, the Authority raises challenges to several pretrial and trial rulings, and the denial of its motion for a new trial. We affirm.
Prior to trial, Judge Daniel P. Mecca denied the Authority's motion for summary judgment. Trial was conducted before Judge Brian R. Martinotti and a jury.
The evidence can be summarized as follows. Perry, who was sixty-two years old at the time of the trial, was a career Standardbred horse trainer for more than forty years. In order to obtain stall space at the complex, the Authority required trainers to fill out and sign annually a "Standardbred Racing Stall Application" listing, among other information, the names of all the horses in the care of the trainer. The agreement required trainers to enter and race the horses listed, which are "assigned free stall space," in all races for which they qualify and are eligible. Paragraph ten of the agreement provided, in part, that "[i]t is clearly understood and agreed that this is not a lease of any space, but is merely a revocable license granted by the Meadowlands only on the terms and conditions set forth." Paragraph fourteen of the agreement provided, in part, that "[t]he Applicant undertakes to keep the stabling accommodation and caretaker's quarters (including toilets) allocated to him in good and clean condition." It is undisputed that Perry completed his stall application for the 2003 to 2004 racing season.
It is also undisputed that from January 14 to 18, 2004, approximately 9.7 inches of snow fell in the Meadowlands area; that 2.3 inches of snow fell on January 18, 2004; and that during this period it was very cold, with temperatures barely rising above freezing. No snow fell on January 19, 2004.
At approximately 7:50 a.m. on January 19, 2004, Perry drove to the Meadowlands Racetrack. The roads were not icy and he had no difficulty getting to work that morning. However, Arthur Unger, another trainer, testified that the backstretch parking lot in the area of barn 4E, where he kept his horses, was icy and, as a result, he decided not to take the horses to the track that day.
Perry walked toward the trainers' or pedestrian door, which was located under a small overhang. Perry had never used this door to enter the barn because his horses were stabled on the other side of the barn. As Perry attempted to open the trainers' door, it jammed on an accumulation of ice. Perry "flew back" and fell to the ground. When Perry hit the ground, he heard a "crack" and was immediately in "a lot of pain." As Perry lay on the ice waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he looked up and noticed icicles hanging from the gutters above him.
Perry, who had been working out of barn 5E only since November 2003, testified that he had never noticed ice in front of the trainers' door, or noticed any problems with the gutters.
Several witnesses confirmed Perry's observation. Fellow trainer, Unger, testified that he saw an approximately three-and-a-half-foot-wide and three-inch-deep slab of ice blocking the door. Unger also saw icicles hanging from the overhang. According to Unger, he saw Perry "grab the [door] handle" and then "went flying in the air." Unger complained to the maintenance department that water overflowed the gutters in front of the trainers' door, like a "waterfall." He often got "soaking wet" when he entered the door.
Fellow trainer, John Brennan, testified that he arrived at the barn shortly after Perry was injured. He also saw a large slab of ice in front of the trainers' door and icicles hanging from the gutter. Brennan had complained to the maintenance department that water came out of the downspout, overflowed the gutters, and pooled in front of the door. In fact, Brennan testified that in the winter he often saw icicles hanging from the gutter above the door.
When Brennan complained about the ice accumulation by the stable door, John "Red" Fazekas, foreman of the maintenance department, would give him one or two boxes of rock salt to throw on the ice. Brennan admitted that he had, on occasion, shoveled snow from under the overhang. In response to a jury question, Brennan testified that the problem of pooled water was a problem before the accident.
Richard Balmer, an equine veterinarian, also testified that he saw a large area of "exceptionally thick" ice in front of the door to barn 5E. According to Balmer, he often saw ice in front of the barn door, describing that area as one of the two "iciest" areas of the backstretch, where water often pooled in the warm weather and froze in the winter.
Donna Perry, Perry's wife, arrived at the scene approximately forty-five minutes after the accident. She saw Perry lying on a "chunk" of ice, screaming in pain.
At approximately 12:00 p.m. that afternoon, Donna left the hospital and returned to the accident scene to take photographs. The photographs, which were admitted into evidence, depicted icicles hanging from the overhang and garbage in the cans.
Donna did not take a photograph of the ground in front of the door, although she testified that she had observed a five-to-six inches thick, large slab of ice blocking the door.
Michael Natoli, a civil engineer, testified for Perry. He claimed experience in designing drainage systems for buildings. He opined that the lack of proper maintenance of the drainage system at the stable resulted in the overflowing gutters that caused a dangerous condition, i.e., accumulation of ice blocking the door. In forming that opinion, Natoli reviewed weather reports from the time of Perry's injury and found that the conditions were favorable for the development of water runoff from the roof of the stable. He noted that from January 14 to 18, 2004, about 9.7 inches of snow had fallen in the area of the accident, and of that amount-despite the cold weather conditions due to direct sunlight hitting the snow on the roof-approximately eight inches had melted from the roof. This melting snow was channeled into the drainage system.
Natoli also visited the site and concluded that the one-story stable had a "primitive drainage system," which drained water from the roof into gutters that flowed into vertical leaders or downspouts. He explained that:
[b]y not having those systems capable of properly draining the water, all this water that melted and came off the roof then came onto the ground surface, with flows accumulating in front of the door, which built up to a point that the door was unable to be opened and, as a result, [Perry] was caused to be injured.
When Natoli visited the site in May 2004, he saw that the area in front of the stable door was wet. Natoli also reviewed several photographs of the barn, taken in the winter, that showed icicles hanging from the gutters and icy conditions in the walkway areas. He opined that the ...