The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the trial court's order granting a defense motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiff was the cause of his accidental fall in a slip-and-fall case.
A property in Suffolk County, New York had a staircase handrail that ended before the last step. The plaintiff was descending this staircase with a full pot weighing a whopping 35-40 pounds. The plaintiff fell down the stairs and injured himself. In a slip-and-fall action for negligence, the plaintiff alleged that the staircase handrail was defective, thus causing his fall.
During a deposition, however, the plaintiff said that he was unable to identify the exact cause of his fall. Depositions are interviews of plaintiffs, defendants, and other witnesses that are recorded as part of routine discovery in civil cases. The parties are able to ask the witness questions, and the witness's answers to these questions can be used by the court when evaluating a motion to dismiss, such as a motion for summary judgment.
A motion for summary judgment on all counts by the defense is essentially a motion to dismiss. The moving party is requesting that the judge find that there is no triable issue of fact for each count. Without a triable issue of fact, the count must be dismissed. In its motion for summary judgment, the movant must show that there is no genuine dispute of material fact that can only be decided by a jury.
The role of the jury in a civil case is to act as a fact finder. When facts are disputed, the jury evaluates the testimony and evidence presented at trial, assesses credibility, and tries to figure out what actually happened and who is responsible. If the facts are not disputed or if it is clear that the non-moving party is unable to show that there is a dispute that only a jury can settle, then summary judgment is proper.
When the defendant files a motion for summary judgment, he or she must argue that the plaintiff has failed to set forth a case for the jury. The defendant can rely on the plaintiff's complaint, as well as other evidence such as the depositions. Often times, the depositions will conflict with the complaint or will reveal additional information that may weaken the plaintiff's case.
Here, the plaintiff contradicted himself in a fatal manner. In his complaint, he listed the faulty staircase as the sole cause of his slip-and-fall accident. However, in his deposition, he did not blame the staircase. Rather, he said he did not know what caused his fall. In addition, he revealed in his deposition that at the time he was descending the staircase, both of his hands were occupied with carrying a very heavy pot. Thus it did not matter that the staircase was defective as he did not have any available hands to hold on to the staircase at the time of the fall.
The Second Department held that the plaintiff, in his opposition to the motion for summary judgment, failed to prove he was not the proximate cause of his own fall. Proximate cause is simply legal jargon that means that the event or action was sufficiently related to the injury that it could be said to be the cause of that injury.
Walking down the stairs with two full hands could have caused the plaintiff to be careless or unable to see where he was walking. He may have lost his balance or tripped. The stairway railing could not have caused or even prevented his fall because his hands were too busy carrying a pot to have grasped the handrail. Thus it could be said that the plaintiff was the proximate cause of his fall, not the faulty handrail.
Because the plaintiff failed to raise a genuine dispute regarding the cause of the fall, summary judgment was proper. The slip-and-fall complaint was therefore dismissed.
If you have been the victim of a slip-and-fall accident, consult the New York slip-and-fall accident lawyers at Gallivan & Gallivan today to discuss your potential claim.