NY Landlord Liable for Corroded and Dilapidated Stairs

The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed a trial court’s order denying summary judgment to a landlord sued by his renter after a nasty fall down the stairs.

The plaintiff lived in a duplex owned by the defendant landlord. A set of exterior metal stairs at the building led to the front entrance. The metal was corroded, and parts of the handrail that had corroded had been haphazardly welded back together. The plaintiff descended the stairs, gripping the handrail on his way down. A portion of the handrail that had been welded then broke off in the plaintiff’s grasp, causing him to tumble down the stairs. The plaintiff sustained injuries due to the fall.

The plaintiff brought a premises liability lawsuit to recover for personal injury damages. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the landlord was negligent in maintaining the stairs and handrail in a safe condition. The landlord filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting that the complaint be dismissed.

The defendant made three arguments in his motion for summary judgment: (1) the defendant had maintained the duplex “in a reasonably safe condition,” (2) the plaintiff’s expert had improperly relied on photos of the stairs when declaring that the stairs were dangerous, and (3) the defendant was not negligent in allowing the corrosion.

Regarding the first argument, the trial court held that the defendant had established a prima facie case that the duplex was in a reasonably safe condition, and the Fourth Department agreed. However, the plaintiff is permitted an opportunity to respond to a defense motion for summary judgment. When the defendant has failed to establish a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the plaintiff’s oppositional arguments are not even necessary. However, here, because the defendant did establish this prima facie entitlement, the court then evaluated the plaintiff’s counterarguments.

The plaintiff submitted an affidavit of an expert witness that stated the witness had inspected the railing and that it was the opinion of that witness that the railing had been corroded for a while. The expert stated that corrosion was dangerous and that it was the corrosion that had caused the fall. This created a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the corrosion had caused the fall. Thus, it was for a jury to decide at trial, not the judge.

Regarding the second argument, the defendant argued that the photos of the railing that the expert relied on were not authenticated. Photos submitted into evidence must be authenticated in order to be relied on. This means that there needs to be proof of what the photo is of and when it was taken. Here, however, the record established that the photos were of the exact railing. In addition, the record established by way of date stamp on the photos and testimony by multiple witnesses, including the defendant himself, that the photos were taken right after the fall. The witnesses also stated that the photos accurately depicted the railing as it was at the time of the fall. Thus, the defendant failed on this argument.

Regarding the final argument, the defendant argued that he was not required to prevent railings from corroding. On the contrary, though, the Building Code and Property Maintenance Code of New York State both require landlords to coat railings, stairs, and other exterior metal surfaces with a corrosion inhibitor. Landlords are also required by the law to fix any pre-existing corrosion. When a landlord has violated the Building Code, this is evidence of negligence. Thus, the defendant also failed on this argument.

As such, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment was properly denied, and the case will proceed to trial.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident either on your rental property or someone else’s property, you may have a premises liability claim. Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Gallivan & Gallivan today to discuss your potential claims.

Morreale v. Froelich, 35 CA 14-01219 (4th Dept., Feb. 6, 2015).

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