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Trivial Defects on Property Cause Slip and Fall Case

In a recent non-precedential case, a 58-year-old woman appealed an order entering summary judgment in favor of a management company in a Pennsylvania personal injury and premises liability suit. The case arose when the woman was walking to work in a shopping complex in Pittsburgh. While walking by a storefront in rubber-soled flats, she tripped on brick sidewalk that was part of the storefront. She was severely injured.

The woman sued in April 2010, asserting negligent maintenance of the sidewalk that caused her to trip. Several photographs of the sidewalk were exchanged in discovery. They showed cracks and chips as the woman claimed. At deposition she noted in particular a chip in the side of a brick paver.

The store filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the problems with the sidewalk pointed to by the plaintiff were too trivial to demonstrate negligence. The trial court granted its motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiff’s subsequent motion for reconsideration. The woman appealed.

Among other things, she asked the appellate court to review whether there was an abuse of discretion in the judge finding that the defect in brick paver was a trivial defect as a matter of law, rather than giving the issue to the jury to determine. She also asked whether it was inappropriate for the trial court to make this ruling without permitting further discovery on the measurement of gaps or elevations between the pavers.

The appellate court explained that trivial defects do not support a negligence lawsuit in Pennsylvania. While landowners must maintain their sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition, they aren’t responsible for trivial defects. The question of whether a landowner has followed his obligation requires a case-by-case analysis. Certain elevations or depressions may be considered so trivial that, as a matter of law, courts must hold there was no negligence in a landowner leaving that irregularity without fixing it.

There is no definite rule that shows whether or not a defect is trivial. Case law often relies on the differential between uneven pavements and sloped surface. If a defect isn’t obviously trivial, this issue should be submitted to a jury. The lack of exact measurements isn’t dispositive.

The appellate court noted that there was photographic evidence in this case and that they were especially important because there were no measurements. The court found the defect shown in the photographs was not trivial and gave rise to an issue of material fact that a jury should decide.

The store had characterized the gap in the chipped paver as being the same as ordinary spaces between pavers. The appellate court disagreed noting the gap at issue was four to five times wide as the gaps between the pavers. It explained that even though a jury might decide the defect was not enough to award compensation to the plaintiff, the gap wasn’t trivial for purposes of summary judgment. Rather it was the jury’s role to figure out whether the sidewalk was negligently maintained.

An experienced Pennsylvania personal injury attorney can evaluate the facts of your particular case if you are injured on somebody else’s property and bring a lawsuit on your behalf if appropriate. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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