On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-864-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Carchman.
Plaintiff Stephen Sawruk appeals from an order of the Law Division granting summary judgment and dismissing his complaint seeking damages for an injury sustained after falling on the steps at the Lacey Township Municipal Building. In his complaint filed pursuant to the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, plaintiff alleged that defendant Township of Lacey was responsible because it "permitted [its] rear stairwell to deteriorate to such a degree to create a dangerous condition." In her oral opinion, Judge Rochelle Gizinski concluded that plaintiff failed to establish that a dangerous condition existed. We agree and affirm.
The facts are simply stated. On March 12, 2007, plaintiff, intending to "check on the procedure for a property tax appeal" at the tax assessor's office, entered the Lacey Township Municipal Building. After walking across a vestibule immediately inside the building's rear entrance, Sawruk tripped as he "started to step off the landing" and fell onto the first descending flight of metal or iron stairs. Sawruk "tried to catch [his] balance and lean back" as he "reached out with [his] right hand," but his "feet went out from under [him] . . . . so fast it was like falling on ice."
Sawruk later examined the stair and concluded that "there was some type of a piece missing at the top of the stairs and there was a depression . . . like a trench." At his deposition plaintiff explained that "there [is] something missing on the edge of the step, I cannot say it any clearer than that" and that he fell after his "toe dropped into it."
Although plaintiff provided an array of photographs of the area, he did not proffer an expert to testify or provide an expert report.
According to plaintiff, the photographs "clearly [show] there is a difference in height" along the lip of the first stair. When reviewing the photographs, the judge commented that "the color photographs provided show no trench or depression of any kind." In finding that plaintiff failed to establish a dangerous condition, she added:
There are no missing pieces in the covering on the landing and the metal corner edge of the stair is intact, albeit with some paint worn off. In fact, plaintiff conceded, in his deposition, when looking at photographs of the stairs, there appears to be, ["]nothing there,["] that he could have caught his foot on.
As we have noted, the judge found no dangerous condition existed and dismissed the complaint.
We first consider our standard of review. When reviewing a trial court's decision on a motion for summary judgment, appellate courts employ the same standard that governs the trial court. Henry v. N.J. Dep't of Human Servs., 204 N.J. 320, 330 (2010). That standard is grounded in Rule 4:46-2(c), which provides that summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to judgment or order as a matter of law." Because only a legal question remains after resolution of all factual matters, we conduct a de novo review of any Law Division order granting summary judgment. Henry, supra, 204 N.J. at 330.
On appeal, plaintiff asserts that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a dangerous condition existed and whether defendant had constructive notice of the dangerous condition.
The TCA exposes the State to tort liability for a condition of public property upon a showing: that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either: a. negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or b. [the] public entity had actual or constructive notice of the ...