PAVING THE WAY: New Jersey Supreme Court Extends Duty to Maintain Public Sidewalks Adjacent Vacant Lots

In the recent decision of Padilla v. An, 2024 N.J. LEXIS 575 (June 13, 2024) the New Jersey Supreme Court redefined the landscape of sidewalk liability law by extending a duty to maintain public sidewalks to owners of vacant commercial lots regardless of whether the property was generating or had the capacity to generate income. The case arose out of an incident that occurred in September 2019 when the plaintiff Padilla tripped and suffered injuries on a sidewalk adjacent to a vacant commercial lot owned by defendants Young Il An and Myo Soon An in Camden, New Jersey. The defendants, who purchased the lot with plans to construct a building, never developed the property due to economic constraints. At no point did they obtain liability insurance for the vacant lot. Subsequently, Padilla filed a negligence suit against them, alleging that their failure to maintain the sidewalk caused her injuries.

Initially, both the trial court and the Appellate Division ruled in favor of the defendants, citing Abraham v. Gupta, 281 N.J. Super. 81 (App. Div. 1995), which held that owners of vacant commercial lots were not liable for sidewalk maintenance. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed these decisions, emphasizing principles of fairness and public policy. The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Pierre-Louis, articulated that all commercial property owners, including those with vacant lots, have an inherent duty to keep sidewalks abutting their properties in reasonably good condition.

This ruling marks a departure from previous interpretations that refused to extend liability to vacant lots for sidewalk maintenance duties. In an effort to set clear precedent, the Supreme Court extended liability to all commercial property owners, regardless of whether the property was actively used or generating income. Thus, enhancing protection for pedestrians and patrons while simultaneously ensuring that property owners bear the responsibility for maintaining the safety of the public.

Justice Solomon's dissent, supported by Justices Patterson and Wainer Apter, focused on the concerns about judicial overreach and rather advocates for legislative action to address sidewalk liability in further depth. The dissent highlights the delegation of sidewalk maintenance duties to municipalities under N.J.S.A. 40:65-14, suggesting that legislative intervention may better clarify the obligations and exceptions regarding sidewalk maintenance.

The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in this case represents a significant shift in sidewalk liability law and broadens the scope of responsibility for commercial property owners. Although the decision provides clarity and consistency in legal standards regarding sidewalk liability law, the Supreme Court welcomes legislative review to refine and update sidewalk maintenance obligations in accordance with evolving societal needs and public safety concerns.  However, both the majority and dissenting opinions noted the legislature has the ability to pass laws governing sidewalk liability and invited it do so.  As such, this may not be the last we hear on this issue. 

Need more insights on sidewalk liability law or legal assistance in this area? Contact Frank J. Caruso at or call us at 732-545-4717.