Monday, December 9, 2013

Latest Appellate Decision on Trivial Defect Doctrine in Trip and Fall Cases

In its November 20, 2013 decision in the case of Shaw v. Thomas Jefferson University and City of Philadelphia, No. 619 C.D. 2013 (Pa. Cmwlth. Nov. 20, 2013 Brobson, McCullough, and Friedman, J.J.) (Opinion by McCullough, J.), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the City of Philadelphia’s Summary Judgment in a sidewalk trip and fall over a 2 to 2 ½ inch elevation.  

The court noted that the separate University Defendant had previously filed a Motion for Summary Judgment under the Trivial Defect Doctrine and a defense of a lack of actual constructive notice.  That previous Motion for Summary Judgment had been granted in favor of the University.

The City of Philadelphia followed up with its Motion for Summary Judgment raising the same defenses as the University and also arguing that its motion should be granted under the coordinate jurisdiction rule because the City was only secondarily liable and all claims against the University had been dismissed. 

The City additionally asserted that the Plaintiff has failed to show any evidence of actual constructive notice of the sidewalk defect on behalf of the City.  

The trial court granted the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment and the case was appealed to the Commonwealth Court.  

In its Opinion, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reviewed the Trivial Defect Doctrine under which it has been held that a sidewalk defect may be so trivial that a court must hold, as a matter of law, that the property owner was not negligent in allowing such a small defect to exist.  The Shaw court stated that what constitutes a sufficient defect to hold a property owner liable must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  

In reviewing the record before it, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the Plaintiff’s argument that summary judgment should not have been granted because there is no bright-line rule for a court to use in determining whether a sidewalk defect is obviously trivial.   While the court recognized the continuing validity of the Trivial Defect Doctrine, it found genuine issues of material fact to allow this case to proceed on to a jury trial.  

Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the granting of summary judgment in favor of the University was in error and, as such, so was the granting of summary judgment in favor of the City Defendant. 

The Commonwealth Court further stated that, since they had finalized the issue before them by way of its decision on the Trivial Defect Doctrine, it did not reach the issues raised with respect to the actual or constructive notice defense.

Ultimately, the case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion.  

Anyone wishing to review the Shaw case may click HERE.

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