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Stoetzel v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 29, 2013

KELLY STOETZEL and LEE STOETZEL, Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE AUTHORITY, Defendant.

OPINION

FREDA L. WOLFSON, District Judge.

Defendant, New Jersey Turnpike Authority ("Authority" or "Defendant"), moves for summary judgment on Plaintiffs', Kelly Stoetzel and Lee Stoetzel ("Plaintiffs"), claims for negligence and loss of consortium, respectively, which stem from Ms. Stoetzel's slip and fall in an allegedly icy rest area parking lot operated and owned Defendant. Defendant contends that it is immune from liability by virtue of common-law snow removal immunity and by the weather-related immunity codified at N.J.S.A. 59:4-7. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn mostly from the parties' undisputed statements of material facts. At approximately 7:30 A.M. on January 5, 2011, Plaintiffs stopped at the Woodrow Wilson Rest Area to get a cup of coffee. (NJTA's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("Defendant's Statement"), ¶¶ 2-3). The Woodrow Wilson Rest Area is owned by the Authority, which is responsible for maintenance of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Id. at ¶ 7 The Authority licensed the use of the facilities at this rest area to HMS Host ("HMS"). However, the Authority explicitly retained responsibility for snow removal in the parking lot area.[1] Id. As Ms. Stoetzel walked through the parking lot, she slipped and fell on ice formed by the melting and refreezing of snow the Authority had plowed and piled. Id. at ¶ 5. As a result of the fall, Ms. Stoetzel allegedly suffered ankle injuries which required hospitalization and surgery. (Deposition of Kelly Stoetzel ("Stoetzel Depo."), 65:15-69:24. The fall did not occur on the blacktop, but on one of the concrete islands located in the parking lot. Id. at ¶ 6.

On March 30, 2012, Plaintiff Kelly Stoetzel filed a complaint for negligence against the Authority. She alleged that Defendant owed to her, as an invitee and customer of the rest stop, a duty of care, and that Defendant breached this duty of care by failing to properly maintain the parking area of the rest area and allowing ice to accumulate on the walking surface. ( See Complaint). In addition, Plaintiff Lee Stoetzel, Ms. Stoetzel's husband, filed a loss of consortium claim. Id. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that it is immune from liability by virtue of common-law snow removal immunity and the weather-immunity provision of the Tort Claims Act, 59:4-7.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Courts will enter summary judgment only 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 and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is "genuine" if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the non-moving party's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. See id. at 252. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts "in the light most favorable to the [non-moving] party." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

A party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion." Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The non-moving party then carries the burden to "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324. Moreover, the non-moving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading. Id. at 324; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J.1994). The non-moving party must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. A mere "scintilla of evidence... will be insufficient." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

DISCUSSION

Common law snow removal immunity was first recognized in Miehl v. Darpino, 53 N.J. 49 (1968). There, the court noted that, in the absence of immunity, the only way a municipality could avoid liability for accidents related to inadequate snow removal would be to "broom sweep all the traveled portion of the streets, driveways and sidewalks where natural snowfall has been disturbed by any removal of street snow." Id. at 53-54. Such an undertaking "could make the expense of any extensive program of snow removal prohibitive and could result in no program or in an adequate partial program. Patently, some cleaning of snow is better than none." Id. at 54. According to the court,

The unusual traveling conditions following a snowfall are obvious to the public. Individuals can and should proceed to ambulate on a restricted basis, and if travel is necessary, accept the risks inherent at such a time. To require the individual members of the public to assume the relatively mild additional danger presented by accumulated piles of snow resulting from street snow removal is a minor sacrifice to exact when the alternative could be municipal failure to eliminate the far greater danger caused by permitting snow to remain as deposited by natural forces. The public benefit arising from snow removal far outweighs any slight, private detriment which could accompany such a municipal act.

Id.

A later New Jersey Supreme Court case further elaborated on the reasons for the continued existence of common-law snow removal immunity, noting that snow-removal activities, by their very nature, leave behind "dangerous conditions, " and that it could not imagine any other "governmental function that would expose public entities to more litigation if this immunity were to be abrogated." Rochinsky v. New Jersey Dept. of Transp., 110 N.J. 399, 413-14 (1988).

Subsequent to Miehl, a form of weather-related immunity was codified in New Jersey's Tort Claims Act. N.J.S.A. ...


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