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Case Studies: Landowner Liability

Note: The current statute does not clearly define “premises”, but does note that premises may be “improved or maintained in the natural condition”. N.J. STAT. ANN. § 2A:42A-2. The Landowner Liability Act (LLA) was originally enacted to provide immunity where the lands used were “agricultural lands and woodlands” Toogood v. St. Andrews at Valley Brook Condo Assoc. 313 N.J. Super. 418 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1998). In 1968, the New Jersey Legislature replaced the words ‘”agricultural lands and woodlands” with “premises” Id. This change was not interpreted as a legislative decision to “enlarge the protected class of landowners to suburban landowners. Rather the court held that this change was “intended to better define, and perhaps somewhat broaden, the protected classes which were originally specified in the act."

Tallaksen v. Ross (400 A.2d 485) 1979

Case History: Defendant owned a 70.58 acre tract of undeveloped land in the Borough of Hopatcong, NJ. No effort was made to discourage individuals from trespassing, nor was warning signs posted. There were several drainage pipes which discharged water and created a swamp. The plaintiff minor lived nearby the undeveloped land. Children often used the swamp as a play area. On December 22, 1976, the swamp water was frozen and several children, including the plaintiff, were playing on the frozen water (ice skating and running and playing). The plaintiff fell on her back and landed on a tree stump, injuring herself, while she was engaged in horseplay.

Holding: The court held that the Landowner Liability Protection Act 2A:42A-2 provided immunity to the landowner, because “the act was designed to encourage the recreational use of privately held undeveloped lands; the inducement to the owners to permit such use is the legislative promise of immunity with respect to injuries arising there-from”.

Mancuso v. Klose (730 A.2d 911) 1999

Case History: The plaintiff minor was injured while walking over a downed fence into the neighbor’s yard. The minor brought suit, through his parents, and received a jury verdict in his favor. On appeal, the neighbors argued that the judge erred in denying their motions for summary judgment and involuntary dismissal based on the Landowner's Liability Act (Act), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:42A-2 to -10. The appellate court affirmed, holding that the Act did not apply under the facts. Immunity under the Act did not extend to owners or occupants of land that is located in residential and populated neighborhoods, but was intended to provide immunity for undeveloped, open, and expansive rural and semi-rural properties.

Holding: The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that the neighbors were not entitled to immunity under the Act because they were residential property owners. The case turned on the type of property involved.

Nazarro v. USA (304 F. Supp. 2d 605) 2004

Case History: This is a federal case interpreting New Jersey Landowner Liability Law. The plaintiff was a senior member of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and was injured during an outing arranged by the CAP for its members at an army base. The activity arranged for was deemed an “outdoor sport”, specifically an obstacle course at Ft. Dix Army Base. Numerous defenses were raised regarding governmental immunity and non-profit charitable immunity, however the key issue here is the defense raised that New Jersey Landowner Liability Act (LLA) should exempt the defendant from liability for the injuries.

Holding: Because the alleged wrong took place in New Jersey, it is New Jersey law that controls. The activity was deemed recreational in nature and was rural or semi-rural in nature. The case discusses and distinguishes Mancuso, which held the LLA was inapplicable where the child was hurt running across a neighbor’s yard and the grounds were improved and in a suburban setting. This case was decided for the defendants because immunity is provided under the LLA.