Liability is a Matter of Inches

This was originally posted on the SGR blog.

Awilka Alonzo  sued Audubon Avenue Housing after she purportedly trip and fell over a metal door saddle in her apartment building’s lobby at the 215 Audubon Avenue Housing Development. She claimed that, on July 10, 2015, she was leaving for work when her left foot bumped into the metal door saddle and she fell. Alonzo contended that the door saddle constituted a defective condition because it was not flush with the tile floor.

Audubon moved for summary judgment on the ground that the metal door saddle did not constitute a defect. Audubon’s expert opined that “the saddle/threshold at the subject premises [was] free of defect in design, installation or maintenance, and does not pose a tripping hazard.” He found that:

“The lobby tiles are situated slightly under the saddle/threshold and the gap between the ceramic tile and the underside of the saddle/threshold varies between one-quarter of an inch (1/4″) and half an inch (1/2″) across the entire walking path. Similarly, the outer saddle edge, measured between flush and half an inch (1/2″) high above the sidewalk. The lobby door saddle was observed to be firmly attached and safe under pedestrian loading. The saddle was not loose and did not rock side to side or front to back. The saddle/threshold has none of the characteristics of a snare or trap.”

In opposition, Alonzo’s expert did not dispute the measurements offered by the Audubon’s expert. Instead, he insisted that the “metal door saddle was raised above the height of the ceramic floor” and there “was a sharp lip and a tripping hazard.” Alonzo’s expert also concluded that the raised position of the door saddle was a “toe trap” and violated the New York City Building Code.

Whether a dangerous or defective condition exists on the property of another so as to create liability depends on the peculiar facts and circumstances of each case and is generally a question of fact for the jury. In some instances, the trivial nature of the defect may loom larger than another element. Not every injury allegedly caused by an elevated brick or slab need be submitted to a jury. A court must examine the facts presented, including the width, depth, elevation, irregularity, and appearance of the defect along with the time, place and circumstance of the injury.

There is no per se rule with respect to the dimensions of a defect that will give rise to liability on the part of a landowner or other party in control of premises and even a trivial defect may constitute a snare or trap. While a gradual, shallow depression is generally regarded as trivial the presence of an edge which poses a tripping hazard renders the defect nontrivial.

A small difference in height or other physically insignificant defect is actionable if its intrinsic characteristics or the surrounding circumstances magnify the dangers it poses. The relevant questions are whether the defect was difficult for a pedestrian to see or to identify as a hazard or difficult to pass over safely on foot in light of the surrounding circumstances.

Here, the Court found that the metal door saddle was a trivial defect as a matter of law based on its height differential and the photographs submitted by the parties.

Audubon’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint was granted.

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