N.J. SC sets new liability standard

John O'Brien Jan. 29, 2009, 3:36pm


TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - From a cemetery to the courtroom, a New Jersey woman found $1.6 million. Now, the state Supreme Court has made it harder for her to keep it.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the justices decided the City of Trenton was held to too strict a standard in a case brought against it by Suzanne Ogborne, who broke her leg while scaling a Mercer Cemetery fence in 2001.

Ogborne had gone for a stroll through the cemetery and found herself locked in. She attempted to climb over a 3-foot-high section of iron fence but fell and broke her tibia. The gates lock everyday at 4:30 p.m.

"It is obvious that if Ogborne had not been in the park, the employee's conduct in locking the gates would not have created a dangerous condition of property," Justice John Wallace wrote.

"It was the combination of Ogborne being in the park and the city's employee locking the gates that rendered the Park potentially dangerous to Ogborne.

"Under those conditions, it is reasonably debatable that the locking of the gates rendered the Park a dangerous condition because Ogborne was unable to walk out in the same manner that she entered the Park."

Ogborne was awarded $1.64 million by a jury that was instructed that the City had to be held only to an "ordinary negligence" standard of liability. Thursday's ruling said the City should have been held to a "palpably unreasonable" standard.

A new trial using the new standard will determine if Ogborne will keep the $1.6 million. The amount of the award, the justices say, was justified.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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