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Lechler v. 303 Sunset Avenue Condominium Association, Inc.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 29, 2017

THOMAS G. LECHLER, and ULRIKE LECHLER, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

          Argued November 28, 2017

         On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-0466-15.

          Richard P. Krueger argued the cause for appellants (Krueger & Krueger and The Blanco Law Firm, LLC, attorneys; Richard P. Krueger, on the brief; Pablo N. Blanco, of counsel and on the brief).

          Patrick B. Minter argued the cause for respondents (Donnelly Minter & Kelly, LLC, attorneys; Patrick B. Minter, of counsel; Seth A. Abrams, on the brief).

          Ronald B. Grayzel argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association of Justice (Levinson Axelrod, PA, attorneys; Ronald B. Grayzel, on the brief).

          Before Judges Reisner, Hoffman and Gilson.


          HOFFMAN, J.A.D.

         In this premises liability case, plaintiffs Thomas and Ulrike Lechler[1] appeal from the October 24, 2016 Law Division order granting a directed verdict to defendants, 303 Sunset Avenue Condominium Association, Inc. (Association) and its property manager, Townsmen Properties, LLC (Townsmen), and dismissing plaintiffs' negligence claim with prejudice. We hold that the Association had a statutory duty to maintain the common areas, including a duty to identify and correct dangerous conditions, and that duty extended to residents of the condominium building, regardless of their characterization as licensees or invitees. While a condominium association has a statutory right to adopt a by-law precluding residents from suing the association for negligence, the Association did not adopt such a by-law. Because plaintiff's evidence, if credited by the jury, established a prima facie case of negligence, we reverse and remand for a new trial.


         We discern the following facts from the trial record. In October 2008, plaintiffs purchased a unit from the developer of The 303 Sunset Avenue Condominium (The Condominium), a three-story building containing twenty-four residential units in Asbury Park. The developer established The Condominium in accordance with the provisions of the Condominium Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 46:8B-1 to -38. The Master Deed for The Condominium delegates to the Association "all of the powers, authority and duties permitted pursuant to the Act necessary and proper to manage the business and affairs of [T]he Condominium."

         Plaintiff's accident occurred when he stumbled down the center of The Condominium's wide exterior stairs that led from the building to a walkway. Despite the width of the stairs - 158 inches - they lacked a center handrail, with hand railings only going down the sides. A photograph introduced at trial showed bolt holes in the center of the stairs, indicating a railing previously went down the middle of the stairway. Plaintiff's expert also observed that there were bolts inside the drill holes.

         Plaintiff testified that on August 24, 2014, he started to stumble near those holes, could not catch his balance, and thus began to run down the staircase trying to recover his balance; however, he hit the last step with the edge of his left heel and fell to the ground, screaming in pain. Plaintiff described his left heel as "completely deformed." A passerby called an ambulance, which transported plaintiff to a nearby hospital. There, doctors diagnosed plaintiff's injury as a displaced fracture of the calcaneus of the left foot. Later that day, plaintiff underwent internal fixation surgery, with the installation of hardware to repair the fracture.

         The balcony of plaintiffs' unit overlooks the stairs where his accident occurred. Plaintiff admitted he had used the stairs "on many occasions prior" to that day. He usually walked "down the stairs in the middle." He never experienced a problem using the stairs before his accident.

         Plaintiffs also presented the testimony of the Association's president. She lived in The Condominium since the summer of 2010, and became the Association's president that same year. She agreed the By-Laws stated, "The [B]oard of [D]irectors shall have the powers and duties necessary or appropriate for the administration of the affairs of the [A]ssociation and shall include but shall not be limited to the following: the operation, care, upkeep, maintenance, repair, and replacement of the property and the commons elements." She also agreed that "under the [B]y-[L]aws, the [A]ssociation shall discharge its powers in a manner that protects and furthers the health, safety, and general welfare of the residents of the community." She recognized these By-Laws established "an obligation that the [A]ssociation . . . owes to the members of the community."

         Regarding the stairs where plaintiff's accident occurred, the president said she knew people walked down the center without using the handrails, and she had done so herself. Before plaintiff's accident, she had never received a complaint about the stairs and its lack of a center handrail. She further testified that the State inspected The Condominium in 2012, and the inspector did not advise that the stairway needed a center handrail.

         On October 19, 2013, Townsmen entered into an agreement with the Association to serve as The Condominium's project manager. The agreement required Townsmen to coordinate "all daily property management issues, such as repairs, maintenance, landscaping, snow removal, [and] security" for the Association. Plaintiff's counsel also read from the deposition of Townsmen's owner, who acknowledged that, under the agreement, his company was responsible "for the coordination of all daily property . . . maintenance, landscaping, snow removal, security, and all other issues including contracting, negotiating, and monitoring." When asked if ...

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