Witter v. Sterlingbrook Equine, Inc., Civil Action 19-14799 (MAS) (DEA)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtMICHAEL A. SHIPP, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
PartiesJEFF WITTER AND MARLA WITTER, Plaintiffs, v. STERLINGBROOK EQUINE, INC., et. al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action 19-14799 (MAS) (DEA)
Decision Date10 May 2022

JEFF WITTER AND MARLA WITTER, Plaintiffs,
v.

STERLINGBROOK EQUINE, INC., et.
al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 19-14799 (MAS) (DEA)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 10, 2022


NOT FOR PUBLICATION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL A. SHIPP, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court on four Motions for Summary Judgment. Defendant Joan Milne, individually and d/b/a Sterlingbrook Farm (“Joan”) moved for summary judgment against Plaintiffs Jeff Witter (“Jeff') and Marla Witter (“Marla”) (collectively, “the Witters”). (ECF No. 32.) The Witters opposed (ECF No. 34), and Joan replied (ECF No. 36). Sterlingbrook Farm Events, LLC, Margaret Badalamenti d/b/a Sterlingbrook Farm Events, LLC (“Margaret”) and Stephanie Milne d/b/a Sterlingbrook Farm Events, LLC (“Stephanie”) (collectively . “Sterlingbrook”, and together with Joan, “Defendants”) moved for summary judgment against the Witters. (ECF No. 48.) The Witters opposed (ECF No. 50), and Sterlingbrook replied (ECF No. 52). Finally, the Witters filed two motions for summary judgment against Joan and Sterlingbrook. (ECF Nos. 35, 51.) Joan and Sterlingbrook opposed (ECF Nos. 36, 52) and the Witters replied (ECF Nos. 41, 55). The Court has carefully considered the parties' submissions and decides the matter without oral argument under Local Civil Rule 78.1. For the reasons below, the Court grants

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Sterlingbrook's Motion and the Witters' Motion against Joan but denies Joan's Motion and the Witters' Motion against Sterlingbrook.

I. BACKGROUND

This premises liability case arises out of an accident Mr. Witter suffered at a party hosted by Margaret and Vito Badalamenti (the “Badalamentis”) in July 2017. The Witters are friends with the Badalamentis. (Joan's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“JSUMF”) ¶ 1, ECF No. 32-2.) Joan is the mother of Margaret and Stephanie, and the mother-in-law of Vito Badalamenti (“Vito”), who is married to Margaret. (Id. ¶ 4.) Margaret and Melissa are co-owners of Sterlingbrook, a wedding event company. (Id. ¶ 8.)

Joan and the Badalamentis separately own two adjacent properties. (Sterlingbrook's Statement of Undisputed Facts (“SSUMF”) ¶ 6, ECF No. 48-2.) Though separate, the two properties share a driveway and the Badalamentis use Joan's property on occasion. (JSUMF ¶ 3; Plaintiffs Statement of Material Facts (“PSMF”) ¶ 17, ECF No. 35-2; Vito Dep. Tr. 46:10-15, Ex. F to Mohan Cert., ECF No. 32-3.) Joan's property contains a two-story structure known as a bank barn. (JSUMF ¶ 5.) On one side, the bank barn has a sloping ramp which terminates at the second level of the barn. (Id. ¶ 6.) Sterlingbrook leases the bank barn to host events. (Id. ¶ 8; Lease Agreement, Ex. L to Mohan Cert, ECF No. 32-3.)

On July 15, 2017, the Witters attended a party at the Badalamentis' home. (JSUMF ¶ 2.) The Witters had never been to the Badalamentis' home before the day of the party. (SSUMF ¶ 17.) Nor did Sterlingbrook host the party that evening. (JSUMF ¶ 10.) Before the Witters arrived, Vito authorized another guest to park his car inside the bank barn. (Id. ¶ 21.) It is undisputed that Vito did not ask Joan whether the guest may park in the bank barn. (Id. ¶ 22.) Vito, in fact, testified that he did not believe he needed permission from either his wife or Joan to allow the guest to park a

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vehicle in the bank barn. (Vito Dep. Tr. 41:6-15.) Vito then met the guest and closed the door to the bank barn because the guest intended to stay the night. (JSUMF ¶ 23.)

Soon after, the Witters arrived at the party. (Id. ¶ 29.) Mr. Witter mingled with the guest, and they discussed the guest's car parked in the bank barn. (SSUMF ¶ 26.) Eventually, Mr. Witter and the guest decided to walk over to the bank barn to view the guest's car, but neither told the Badalamentis before doing so. (JSUMF ¶ 30.) The two men walked over to the unlit bank barn, entered, and used a cell phone to illuminate the vehicle. (JSUMF ¶¶ 38-39; SSUMF ¶¶ 27-30.) As they started to walk back to the Badalamentis' home, Mr. Witter veered off the ramp towards the grass and fell off the stone ledge. (JSUMF ¶¶ 43-44.)

On July 8, 2019, the Witters initiated this action. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The Complaint alleges that because of Defendants' negligence, Mr. Witter suffered serious injuries. Mrs. Witter also alleges a claim for loss of consortium.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “[a] party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. A dispute is genuine if there is sufficient evidentiary support such that “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material if it can “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of proving an absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

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If the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the movant may discharge its burden by pointing to an absence of evidence necessary to support the non-movant's claim. (Id. at 325.) Alternatively, a moving party may submit affirmative evidence that negates a material element of the non-moving party's claim. Id. If the movant brings affirmative evidence or makes a showing that the non-movant lacks evidence essential to its claim, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine [dispute] for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322 n.3. The burden of persuasion, however, rests on the non-moving party to establish each element necessary to succeed on the claims on which it bears the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322.

To decide whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the Court must consider all facts, drawing all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Kaucher, 455 F.3d at 423. On a motion for summary judgment, “the judge's function is not... to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine [dispute] for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Absent a genuine dispute fortrial, summary judgment as a matter of law is proper. Id. at 249-50.

III. DISCUSSION

The existence and scope of a duty of care are legal issues to be determined by the court. Kuehn v. Pub Zone, 835 A.2d 692, 698 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 2003) (citing Carvalho v. Toll Bros. & Developers, 675 A.2d 209, 212 (N.J. 1996)). To establish a cause of action for negligence under New Jersey law, a plaintiff must prove four elements: “(1) a duty of care, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) proximate cause, and (4) actual damages.” Townsend v. Pierre, 110 A.3d 52, 61 (N.J. 2015) (citation omitted). The Court first considers the proper standard to determine (1) if there was a duty owed to the Witters, and (2) if Defendants breached the duty owed to the Witters.

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A. New Jersey's Premises Liability Standards.

In New Jersey, the common law established traditional premises liability that a landowner owed increasing care to an individual on the landowner's property depending on whether the visitor is a trespasser, licensee or social guest, or business invitee. Parks v. Rogers, 825 A.2d 1128, 1132 (N.J. 2003). New Jersey's premises liability doctrine, however, is evolving to “a broadening application of a general tort obligation to exercise reasonable care against foreseeable harm to others.” Maran v. Victoria's Secret Stores, LLC, 417 F.Supp.3d 510, 521 (D.N.J. 2019). A court's task is to “consider all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether it is fair and just to impose upon the landowner a duty of reasonable care commensurate with the risk of harm.” Sussman v. Mermer, 862 A.2d 572, 574 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 2004) (citing Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, Inc., 677 A.2d 705 (N.J. 1996)). “In assessing whether imposition of such a duty would be fair and just, courts weigh and balance the following four factors: (1) the relationship of the parties, (2) the nature of the attendant risk, (3) the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and (4) the public interest in the proposed solution.” Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 625 A.2d 1110, 1116 (N.J. 1993).

Nonetheless, New Jersey courts are clear that the traditional categories align with the factors set forth in Hopkins. Maran, 417 F.Supp.3d at 522 (“While the status of the injured party no longer rigidly dictates a landowner's liability, the common law classifications remain helpful in determining the existence and scope of the duty of care” (citing Amentler v. 69 Main St., LLC, No. 08-0351, 2011 WL 1362594 at *5 (D.N.J. Apr. 11, 2011))); Rowe v. Mazel Thirty, LLC, 209 N.J. 35, 45 (2012) (“The common law categories [of invitee, licensee, and trespasser] are a shorthand ... for the duty analysis; they, too, are based on the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, the ability to exercise care, and considerations of public policy. The only difference is

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that. . . the duty analysis has already been performed[.]”); see also Amentler, 2011 WL 1362594, at *5.

In sum, the Court will analyze these claims under the traditional premises liability categories, however, the Court will also incorporate the Hopkins factors.

B. The Duty of Care

In resolving the dueling summary judgment motions, the Court must first address the relevant duty of care. Joan and Sterlingbrook argue that because Mr. Witter was a trespasser, the only duty of care owed to him was to...

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