Under New York law, a property owner is not liable for an injury arising from an accident resulting from a “trivial” defect on the property. New York case law holds that there are no specific dimensions that a defect must meet to be actionable. The Appeals Court has held that the dimensions of a defect are a factor in determining if the defect is trivial as a matter of law, but not the only factor. A determination that a particular defect is trivial is to be based on all of the facts and circumstances of the particular case. A defect does not have to constitute a “trap” to be actionable. Small defects may be actionable if the surrounding facts and circumstances support liability by making them difficult to see or identify or difficult to walk across.
The New York Court of Appeals recently reviewed three cases in which summary judgment was granted on the issue of triviality in Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp.
In the first case, the plaintiff fell after catching his foot on a metal object sticking out of the sidewalk. The plaintiff sued the owner of the building the sidewalk abutted. The defendant had evidence that the alleged defect was between an eighth to a quarter of an inch protrusion above the sidewalk with about five-eighths of an inch diameter.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing it was a trivial and non-actionable defect. The Supreme Court granted the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Appeals Court found the size to support a determination that the defect was trivial. Furthermore, the area was well-lit, and the protruding object was not hidden or covered. It was not jagged, and the surrounding surface was even. The Appeals Court found that the surrounding facts supported a finding that the defect was trivial and affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.
In the second case, the plaintiff fell after catching his foot on a chip in the nosing of a step on an interior staircase. He sued the building owner. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no notice and that the alleged defect was trivial and nonactionable. The defendant presented evidence that the chip was 3¼ inches wide and ½ inch deep. The defendant’s engineering consultant said a person descending the stairs would not ordinarily put weight where the chip was located and that the chip was not a hazard.
The plaintiff argued that the chip was an inch deep in some places. The plaintiff’s engineer explained the process that would cause someone to step on the front of the nosing and suffer a fall when there is an insufficient area to support the person’s weight. The Supreme Court denied the motion, finding there were issues of fact as to notice and triviality. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the alleged defect was not on the walking surface and was trivial and nonactionable.
The plaintiff in this case argued that the trivial defect doctrine should not apply to a case against a private defendant involving an interior staircase. The Appeals Court disagreed, finding that it had been applied to defects on stairs in private buildings. The doctrine is based on the principle that a defect that is so small a careful person would not reasonably anticipate danger does not create liability if an accident does occur.
The Appeals Court found there was an issue of fact, however, regarding whether the defect was trivial. The Appellate Division found that the defect was “not on the walking surface,” but the plaintiff’s expert had explained how a person could step on that part of the stair. The Appeals Court also noted that the issue is not whether someone could avoid the defect, “but whether a person would invariably avoid” it while descending the stairs in a way a person ordinarily would do. The Appeals Court found there was an issue of fact as to whether the defect was trivial and reversed the Appellate Court’s ruling.
The third case also involved a fall on an interior staircase. The plaintiff in that case testified that her foot got caught on some type of protrusion on the step that had “been painted over.” She sued both the owner and the manager of her apartment building.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the alleged defect was trivial and nonactionable and that they did not create it or have notice of it. The Supreme Court denied the motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the photographs presented by the plaintiff had shown that the alleged defect was trivial and nonactionable.
In the third case, no measurements were presented before the summary judgment ruling. The Appeals Court found that the defendant had not made a prima facie showing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Appeals Court noted that the photographs here were not sufficient to meet the defendant’s burden, but there could be a case in which a court could legitimately decide the issue of triviality based on photographs without measurements. The Appeals Court also held that the defendants failed to make a prima facie showing that they neither created nor had notice of the defect. The Appeals Court reversed the Appellate Division.
As these cases illustrate, triviality is not a clear-cut issue. Our Manhattan premises liability attorneys recognize the need to investigate all of the surrounding facts and circumstances of a fall in order to properly evaluate and present a case.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp., November 12, 2015, Supreme Court of The State of New York Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department
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Fernandez v. Festival Fun Parks – New York Slip-and-Fall Case to Proceed, December 16, 2014, New York City Injury Law Blog