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Grecco v. Sullivan

September 17, 2010


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-587-07.

Per curiam.


Submitted: June 9, 2010

Before Judges Cuff, C.L. Miniman and Fasciale.

Plaintiff Geraldine Grecco appeals from an October 9, 2009, summary judgment dismissing her personal-injury complaint in which she alleged that defendants John and Madeline Sullivan failed to inspect, maintain, and manage the premises and walkways on their property, causing her to slip and fall.*fn1

Because defendants owed to plaintiff only the duty of care for social guests, which as a matter of law they did not violate, we affirm.

Because this is an appeal from a summary judgment, we accept plaintiff's version of the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995); see also R. 4:46-2(c). The parties' homes were located directly across the street from each other in Hamburg, and they had been "neighborly" since 2001. Plaintiff helped John on various occasions, and the parties occasionally visited each other's homes for social events.

In early 2007, there was an area snowstorm. Shortly thereafter, defendants needed to replace their refrigerator and, as a result, John asked plaintiff to store an estimated 100 pounds of frozen food for approximately two days. Plaintiff asserts that John brought the food to her home, and thus, she had no knowledge of the condition of his driveway after the snowstorm.

On February 8, 2007,*fn2 John notified plaintiff that his new refrigerator had been delivered. He did not discuss the condi- tion of his driveway. Plaintiff offered to return the food to defendants' home because Madeline was very ill and John's health was also impaired. The trip from plaintiff's home to defendants' residence was on a descending slope. Plaintiff and the person with whom she lived drove to the top of defendants' driveway and parked on the street. Plaintiff observed that the driveway seemed icy. John admitted it contained icy patches that he could not remove because it was too cold for salt to melt the ice.

Plaintiff decided not to drive her vehicle down the driveway out of concern that she would be unable to back her car up the slope to the street. Rather than returning the food another day, plaintiff elected to cross defendants' property on foot over the front lawn, which was covered with several inches of snow. Plaintiff had never walked across defendants' lawn but had visited on several occasions by walking down the driveway. John was aware that some other residents of the steeply sloped neighborhood preferred to walk on snow rather than pavement, believing that snow offered better traction. Plaintiff contended that she chose the lawn because the snow was "crunchy" and, therefore, would provide a better foothold.

As plaintiff crossed defendants' lawn, she fell and broke her left arm. At the time, the bags of frozen food she was car- rying in each hand weighed approximately twenty to twenty-five pounds each.

On defendants' motion for summary judgment, the judge concluded that plaintiff was a social guest.*fn3 The court held that her return of the frozen food was a "gesture of neighborliness," done for free, and did not confer a benefit on defendants that elevated plaintiff's status to that of a business invitee.

Plaintiff asserts that the judge erred in granting summary judgment because she should be characterized as a business invitee and, therefore, was entitled to a higher standard of care. More specifically, plaintiff alleges that she was on defendants' property to confer a benefit upon them, and as a result, she was entitled to the elevated status of business invitee. She asserts that defendants breached their duty of care by failing to completely clear the driveway of ice and to provide a safe pathway to the front door. Even if plaintiff was merely a social guest, she contends that defendants breached the lesser duty of care by failing to inform her of risks to which she was exposed in traversing their property.

In reviewing a ruling on a summary-judgment motion, we apply the same standard as that governing the trial court. Liberty Surplus Ins. Corp. v. Nowell Amoroso, P.A., 189 N.J. 436, 445-46 (2007); Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998); Antheunisse v. Tiffany ...

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