Construction Defects

Trial Court Erred in Ruling a Sidewalk Defect that caused a Trip-and-Fall

The Legal Intelligencer
February 3, 2015

Reinoso v. Heritage Warminster SPE LLC, PICS Case No. 15-0121 (Pa. Super Jan. 14, 2015) Stabile, J. (27 pages).

The trial court erred in ruling a sidewalk defect that caused a trip-and-fall, trivial as a matter of law, where appellant-plaintiff, an invitee, presented expert evidence that the defect exceeded safety standards. Summary judgment reversed.

Plaintiffs Guadalupe and Edmundo Reinoso appealed from the order of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of appellee Heritage Warminster, upon the trial court's ruling that the sidewalk defect on property owned by Heritage that caused Guadalupe's trip-and-fall was, as a matter of law, trivial, and therefore eliminated any genuine issue of material fact.

While attending a charity event at the center, Guadalupe and her granddaughter were walking on a sidewalk in Heritage's retail center when they tripped and fell on a raised section of sidewalk, causing Guadalupe to suffer a broken left hand and fractured ribs.

Appellants argued that the trial court erred in ruling the defect trivial, and contended that the evidence presented a genuine issue of material fact for a jury to decide. Appellants' expert engineer measured the defect that caused the trip-and-fall and found a 5/8 inch difference between sections of the sidewalk, which the expert testified exceeded the safety standard maximum of 1/4 inch. An employee for the company hired by Heritage to maintain the property also testified at deposition that he considered the defect a hazard and brought it to Heritage's attention.

The court noted that, although Heritage as property owner was not an insurer of the safety of those using the property's sidewalks, as Guadalupe was a business invitee she was entitled to the highest duty owed by a property owner, namely, to protect invitees against both known dangers and those that could be discovered with reasonable care. Although the court agreed with the trial court that there was no issue of fact as to the extent of the defect, the court found that the trial court did not acknowledge appellants' expert's opinion that the defect constituted a hazard and exceeded safety standards, or testimony from a maintenance employee that he considered the defect a hazard and reported it to Heritage.

The court cited prior case law that had overturned trial court rulings of defects as trivial, which noted that whether a defect was trivial could not be determined from a mathematical perspective. Instead, the court held that precedent required that a defect could not be determined simply by its size to be trivial where there were genuine issues of material fact based on the surrounding circumstances. Here, the court found that the additional testimony evidence established genuine issues of material fact.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ott argued that the trial court did not err in ruling the sidewalk defect trivial as a matter of law, arguing that sidewalks were inherently imperfect and could likely contain tripping hazards, and that the trial court erred in giving weight to expert opinion that the defect measurement exceeded safety standards, noting that mathematical definitions of triviality had been explicitly rejected by case law. Judge Ott argued that the question was whether the defect posed an unreasonable risk of harm, and that since imperfections such as the one that caused appellant's fall were common in the area, the trial court did not err in finding the defect in question trivial.

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SOURCE: www.thelegalintelligencer.com

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