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Vaxter v. Liberty State Park

October 28, 2010

CARLA VAXTER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LIBERTY STATE PARK, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, DIVISION OF PARKS & FORESTRY, AND STATE PARK SERVICE, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-5623-08.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 28, 2010

Before Judges Parrillo and Yannotti.

Plaintiff Carla Vaxter appeals from the summary judgment dismissal of her personal injury negligence complaint, finding defendant State entities*fn1 immune from liability under the Landowners' Liability Act (LLA or Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-2 to -10, specifically N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-3. We affirm.

The material facts are not in dispute. On the morning of July 20, 2007, plaintiff and her friend visited Liberty State Park in Jersey City to exercise on the park's walking paths. No fee of any kind was charged for access to or use of the park's grounds, which are operated and maintained by the State, and are open and free to the public. Following their speedwalking workout, plaintiff and her friend returned to a parking lot on the premises to retrieve water bottles from her friend's car. After consuming the water, plaintiff attempted to discard the empty water bottles in a trash receptacle. On her way to the receptacle, plaintiff crossed over a white barrier and stepped into a hole in a grassy area located in front of the parking lot, causing her to trip and fall and injure her ankle.

Plaintiff sued defendant alleging the State is liable for negligently maintaining the property and creating a dangerous condition. Following discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment, which the motion judge granted, finding Liberty State Park qualified as "premises" subject to the protective immunity afforded by the LLA. The judge reasoned in part:

[P]laintiff was jogging and speedwalking while on the park premises. In the eyes of this Court, this is recreational activity. While plaintiff may have finished her exercise and was on her way to the parking area when the injury occurred, she had not left the park yet. And since she had been at the park for recreational purposes, the [LLA] applies.

It would be an unreasonable construction of the respective statutes to construe them as providing that the state or other public entity would have a greater tort liability than a private landowner. The Trimblett [v. State, 156 N.J. Super. 291, 295 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 75 N.J. 589 (1977)] court, therefore, concluded that the Landowner Liability Act precludes liability on the part of the [S]tate. Therefore, in this case the State of New Jersey may avail itself of the protection and immunity offered by [the LLA] . . . .

On appeal, plaintiff argues that the LLA does not apply because she had finished exercising and was conferring a benefit upon the State at the time of the accident and because the State generated the risk of injury. We disagree and affirm substantially for the reasons stated by the motion judge in her oral opinion of August 27, 2009. We add only the following comments.

The LLA provides in pertinent part that:

[a]n owner . . . of [the] premises . . . whether or not improved or maintained in a natural condition, or used as part of a commercial enterprise, owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for sport and recreational activities, or to give warning of any hazardous condition of the land or in connection with the use of any structure or by reason of any activity on such premises to persons entering for such purposes[. Moreover, a]n owner . . . of [the] premises who gives permission to another to enter upon such premises for a sport or recreational activity or purpose does not thereby (1) extend any assurance that the premises are safe for such purpose, or (2) constitute the person to whom permission is granted an invitee to whom a duty of care is owed, or (3) assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by any act of persons to whom the permission is granted. [N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-3.]

The Act does not create any duty of care or ground of liability for damages for injury. N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-5. The Act protects landowners from liability for injuries suffered by people who use the property, free of charge, for recreational purposes.

N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-3, and -4. "Sport and recreational activities" include hiking, picnicking, "and any other outdoor . . . recreational ...


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