Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp. – Overcoming Trivial Defect Doctrine in Sidewalk Fall Cases

In sidewalk trip-and-fall lawsuits, one of the best strategies for defendants is to bring up the “trivial-defect doctrine.” It allows a judge to determine that even if there was a defect in the sidewalk and even if that defect caused a fall, it was “trivial,” and therefore not actionable as a matter of law. The idea is that the defect was so slight or inconsequential that the defense wasn’t legally obligated to take action.
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Although courts have recognized that minor defects can be dangerous to pedestrians, their existence sometimes is not sufficient in order to create constructive notice (i.e., defendant “should have known” of the problem), which is essential to winning a premises liability lawsuit. Injuries caused by minor defects can still be actionable, but each case needs to be weighed carefully.

North Carolina law holds that local governments are responsible for maintaining all pedestrian facilities, except in some cases where local ordinances were passed that shift liability onto adjacent property owners. It is in these case a matter of who “controls” the sidewalk, rather than who “owns” it.

In the recent New York Appeals Court case of Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp., the question arose in three separate cases (which were later consolidated) about whether sidewalk defects resulting in trip-and-fall injuries were “trivial.”

The appellate court opened its opinion with the line that these cases “teach that it is usually more difficult to define what is trivial than what is significant.” The common theme in each case was that a person tripped on a defect in a sidewalk or stairway and was injured; However, each was barred from going to trial because the defect was characterized as “too trivial” to be actionable.

Appeals court ruled the court erred in dismissing two of the three cases. The first involved a plaintiff who was walking in the Bronx when his right foot got “caught” on a metal object that was sticking out of the sidewalk. He fell, resulting in injuries. When he sued, photographs of the defect revealed the defect was a cylindrical object that was between one-eighth-to-one-quarter of an inch above the sidewalk, and less than half an inch in diameter. In that case, appeals court affirmed trial court’s grant of summary judgment on the basis of a finding that defect was trivial.

In the second case, plaintiff fell while walking down the staircase of a lobby of a Brooklyn residential building where part of the nosing of the stairs were chipped. The missing area was about 3 1/4 inches in width and 1/2 inch in depth. Trial court found this to be a trivial defect, but appeals court reversed.

In the third case, a woman was injured in a fall on an interior staircase where she lived after her right foot got caught in a protrusion that had been painted over. Defendant argued the stairs had been painted three or four years earlier, and he had never received complaint about them before. Trial court granted summary judgment, but appeals court reversed.

The court noted that while there is no minimal dimension test for a defect to be considered actionable, the question is whether the defect causes a trap or nuisance. It’s not just the size, but he facts and circumstances taken together with the nature and size of the defect.

In opposing the trivial defect defense, plaintiff attorneys should bear in mind that pedestrians have a limited scope of duty of reasonable care. That is, while a pedestrian has to avoid open and obvious dangers, he or she also has the right to assume the sidewalk is in reasonably safe condition and that he or she doesn’t have to keep eyes to the ground at all times.

It may also be worthwhile to look at the larger section of sidewalk as a whole. For example, if the portion of walkway on which the pedestrian tripped is very small but the whole sidewalk is dilapidated, it could be argued the defect is part of a broader hazard.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp., Oct. 20, 2015, New York Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Regents v. Super. Ct. – University Duty of Care to Students, Oct. 7, 2015, Asheville Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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