What Constitutes a “Trivial” Defect in N.Y. Personal Injury Cases?

In May, the Appellate Division, Second Department clarifyied an issue of law that should be of interest to property owners. Put simply: when someone injures himself or herself on another’s property, how liable is the property owner?

gravel.jpgThe case of Grundstrom v. Papadopoulos stemmed from an incident that occurred 2008. Plaintiff, Josephine Grundstrom, tripped and fell while on the premises of defendant Gregory Papadopoulos. At the time the property was being partially rented from Mr. Papadopoulos by co-defendant Delicato Chiropractic. Ms. Grunderson showed up that day for a chiropractic appointment, apparently her first at the facility. A sign on the front door informed her that the doctor’s office was in the rear of the building. She dutifully walked where the sign directed her. There was no walkway, but rather a gravel area leading to a brick patio, past which was the building’s rear door. Upon attempting to enter the patio, Ms. Grunderson slipped – the patio was deceptively elevated – and injured herself. She sued both the property owner and the chiropractic office. The facts make this a fairly classic “slip and fall” case, otherwise referred to as premises liability.

In the lower court, much of the fight was between the co-defendants, each of whom asserted that the other who was responsible for maintaining that area of the property. Delicato Chiropractic won that argument, with the court finding that this area was not being “used,” in the legal sense, by them, and as such responsibility for the area fell on Mr. Papadopoulos.

Papadopoulos claimed that the defect, the slightly raised patio, was “trivial.” Under the law, property owners are not liable for injuries resulting from mere “trivial” defects. Many lawsuits, this one included, hinge on the very question of what it or is not a trivial defect.

As the Second Department points out, there is no strict test that determines triviality of a defect. That is, one cannot point to a specific number or dimension. However, the burden of proving such falls on the defendant, because if a defect is found to be “trivial,” the defendant wins as a matter of law. Again as pointed out by the court, all aspects of the defect need to be examined in deciding triviality, including “width, depth, elevation, irregularity, and appearance of the defect[.]”

The Court ruled against Papadopoulos’ argument. The Court pointed out that he failed to provide any dimensions to the defect at all. So while there is no “magic number” that would prove triviality, as the party with the burden, it was incumbent on Papadopoulos to show that this particular defect was small and nearly insignificant. In many cases, this involves, at a minimum, providing some dimensions to the court so that it may make an informed judgment. Papadopoulos provided only photographs, and the court did not feel confident enough to rule that he had overcome his legal burden.

It is more difficult to prove triviality than it might seem at first. In this case, according to the lower court, the difference in height between the gravel area and the patio was a mere inch, but that was not small enough to make the defect a trivial one. After all, Ms. Grundstrom did manage to severely injure herself regardless of the “tiny” height differential. Perhaps with more substantial evidence Papadopoulos would have overcome his burden, but those are facts for a different case.

For more on this case, see the Supreme Court opinion here, and the Second Department opinion here.

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