THOMAS G. LECHLER, and ULRIKE LECHLER, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
303 SUNSET AVENUE CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATION, INC., and TOWNSMEN PROPERTIES, LLC, Defendants-Respondents.
November 28, 2017
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).
B. Grayzel argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey
Association of Justice (Levinson Axelrod, PA, attorneys;
Ronald B. Grayzel, on the brief).
Judges Reisner, Hoffman and Gilson.
premises liability case, plaintiffs Thomas and Ulrike
Lechler 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 ...