Cassondra Williams sued the County of Erie and Erie County Medical Center Corporation after she slipped and fell in a corridor of the Erie County Medical Center while at work. Williams worked for a company that provided food service to the hospital and the corridor in which she fell was used primarily by her employer to delivery food. Building owners have a responsibility to those using the buildings to provide a safe environment. But when suing the owners of a building or space the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the owners either created a dangerous condition or had constructive notice of the condition.
The Supreme Court, Erie County granted summary judgment to the hospital dismissing the case, finding that Williams failed to prove that the hospital had either created the condition or had known about it before she fell. Summary judgment is a decision made by a court that there is no triable issue of fact to be decided. As such the only issue to be decided is an issue of law. Because juries decide the facts and judges apply the law, when no question of fact exists the court can grant a motion for summary judgment. This serves prevent cases in which there is no dispute of fact from going to trial.
To prove that they had not caused the accident the defendants presented evidence that had come to light in a New York General Municipal Law § 50-h hearing. A General Municipal Law § 50-h hearing when a notice of claim is filed against a municipality such as a city, county, fire department, or school district. In a 50-h hearing the parties may be questioned and the claimant may be required to be examined by a physician. Evidence brought to light in a 50-h hearing maybe entered into evidence by either party at a later civil trial. The evidence from such a hearing can form the basis for a summary judgment as it did in this case
The defendants, the hospital and the county, presented evidence that they did not create the danger and did not know about it prior to Williams' accident. Additionally, they presented evidence that they had cleaned the dietary corridor with an autoscrub machine during the overnight shift preceding the daytime shift that Williams worked. Williams arrived at 6:30 am, several hours after the autoscrub machine had finished, giving time for any leftover water to dry. The defendants also submitted evidence that during the daytime shift the main use of the corridor was by the company who employed the plaintiff, and that because of this, contractually, the plaintiff's employer was solely responsible for cleaning and maintenance of the corridor. The plaintiff had testified in the hearing that she did not see any water on the ground before she fell at 9:00 am and that she had not seen any water on the ground before her fall. She claimed that an employee of the hospital, as opposed to herself or one of her co-workers, had spilled the water. The court found that because her employer was in charge of cleaning and maintenance, and because the autoscrub had finished many hours earlier, the hospital had not created the danger.
However, the hospital could still have been found responsible for the accident if they had constructive notice, meaning that they should have know or a reasonable person would have known that there was a dangerous condition in their building. The court laid out the well established law that a dangerous condition "must be visible and apparent and it must exist for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit defendant . . . to discover and remedy it." The court found that because Williams did not see the water several minutes before her accident there was no way the hospital could have had constructive notice of the danger. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, agreeing with the Supreme Court, upheld the decision of the lower court, granting summary judgment in favor of the hospital.