California Appellate Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of Ralphs Market When Plaintiff Who Slipped and Fell Showed Only Trivial Defect

In a recent unpublished opinion regarding an underlying premises liability lawsuit, the California Court of Appeal upheld a judgment in favor of a Southern California supermarket chain after the plaintiff alleged a defective floor caused her to slip and fall and suffer injuries. The court reviewed the evidence presented before the trial court, relying on the rule of law that states that property owners are not responsible for defects that are deemed “trivial” as a matter of law.  In this lawsuit, the plaintiff had not shown the defect to be material, and her opposition to the defendant supermarket’s motion for summary judgment did not create a triable issue of material fact.

The plaintiff brought a lawsuit against Hughes Markets, Inc. dba Ralphs. She alleged premises liability and negligence. Ralphs moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. The plaintiff appealed.

The facts indicated that while the plaintiff was exiting a Ralphs Store in Sherman Oaks, she slipped and fell.  She filed this complaint and contended that the floor was uneven and defective. In their summary judgment motion, Ralphs argued the floor defect was trivial as a matter of law. They supported their motion with a declaration of the former store manager, who had inspected and measured the floor.  The plaintiff relied on a declaration by a civil engineer in support of her opposition to summary judgment. Ralphs alleged that they could not be found liable because there was no condition that created a substantial risk of injury. They argued that the floor defect was trivial.

The court here stated that the trivial defect defense makes clear that property owners are not liable for those damages that result from a trivial or minor defect in property.  This is because some defects exist even with the use of reasonable care.  While the “trivial defect defense” is not an affirmative defense, it is an aspect of duty the plaintiff must plead and prove.  Its purpose was to shield property owners from needing to maintain their property in perfect condition.

It is a question of law as to whether a defect is to be considered minor.  First, the court looks at evidence showing the type and size of the defect.  If the defect appears trivial from that evidence, the next question is whether lighting, weather, or other conditions affected the defect, including the plaintiff’s knowledge of the area.  When these factors fail to indicate the defect was sufficiently dangerous to a reasonably careful person, the court should deem the defect trivial as a matter of law.

Here, the declaration of Ralphs’ former store manager was supported by photographs, which showed that there were no jagged edges or exposed rebar on the linoleum tile, although there was a height of less than ⅛ of an inch when compared to the surface. The appellate court stated that the plaintiff did not offer contradictory evidence that countered the material fact showing the irregularity in the surface was no larger than ⅛ of an inch.

The court noted that the plaintiff had relied on the deposition of her civil engineer, who indicated that there were cracks in the tile. But the court stated that these cracks did not change the nature or height of the defect. In fact, there was no evidence that the cracks contributed to her fall.

Next, the court cited precedent indicating that defects larger than ⅛ of an inch have been considered trivial as a matter of law.  The court stated that the case law, combined with common sense, indicates that a minor elevation difference of ⅛ of an inch cannot be held to be a considerable deviation in a floor. Unless other factors made the floor slippery or dangerous, the defect must be trivial as a matter of law.

Here, the plaintiff had not alleged there were aggravating conditions that led to a greater danger. In fact, she admitted there was no trash or liquid in the area near her fall. Additionally, there were no other customer accident claims involving this defect, and there was no evidence that Ralphs had been on prior notice of the alleged defect.

Since Ralphs met its burden of showing the defect was trivial, the burden shifted to the plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact.  She relied on the expert opinion of her civil engineer. But the court stated the rule of law that holds that an expert opinion, without reason or explanation, does not establish a material fact.  Here, the declaration did not indicate the width of the alleged defect, although it stated there was a defect.  Additionally, when photographic evidence of an alleged defect may be sufficient to show the defect was trivial, expert testimony is not required.

Since reasonable minds could only reach the conclusion that there was no substantial risk of injury, the issue was one of a question of law to be resolved through summary judgment. The court stated that reasonable minds could not differ about whether the risk of injury was trivial. Here, Ralphs met its burden of showing the plaintiff could not succeed in her complaint, and she did not raise triable issues of fact in opposition.

The court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

At Sharifi Firm, our premises liability attorneys help accident victims present a strong case for compensation. We have successfully recovered damages on behalf of injured individuals throughout Southern California and are available for a free consultation. Contact our office at 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Finds Condition Outside Pacific Palisades Vons Market Not Dangerous, Plaintiff Not Entitled to Damages for Slip and Fall Accident, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 11, 2016

California Court of Appeal Affirms Holding in Favor of City Because Minor Defect in Sidewalk was Trivial, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 15, 2016

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