The California Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, landlords who had moved for summary judgment in a personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff had alleged negligence after tripping and falling down a stairway in the common area of her apartment building. The court focused on whether the trial court had properly found that the defendants lacked notice of the alleged defect, which is a required element of a plaintiff’s negligence claim. Concluding that the evidence showed a triable issue of material fact remained both on whether the stairway was a dangerous condition and whether the landlords had notice of the condition, the appellate court reversed the judgment.
The plaintiff alleged she had tripped on the metal “nose” of a stair and fallen down the stairway at the defendants’ property. In her complaint against the defendants, the plaintiff alleged that the stairways had been diligently maintained, operated, designed, and constructed. She claimed that she had not been warned about the dangerous condition.
In moving for summary judgment, the defendants argued (1) there was no dangerous condition on their property, and (2) they did not have notice of any dangerous condition on their property. The trial court found that the defendants had met their burden of showing that they did not have notice and granted the summary judgment motion in their favor.
The appellate court stated that premises liability is a type of negligence, and plaintiffs must show that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, breached the duty, and caused damages. Additionally, California law requires that landlords meet their duty to maintain common use areas in a reasonably safe condition. However, the court stated the rule of law that common areas need not be in “perfect condition.”
Additionally, the court stated that plaintiffs must prove that a defect is dangerous, according to the legal definition, which means it is not trivial or insignificant. Here, the trial court found that there was a triable issue of fact regarding whether a dangerous condition existed on the property. The defendants argued on appeal that they did not have notice of the defect. The court stated that the plaintiff had shown sufficient evidence that the defect was a dangerous condition and thus created a triable issue of material fact that precluded granting summary judgment.
Regarding the defendants’ argument that they had no notice of the dangerous condition, the rule is that lack of knowledge is not a defense. Landowners must meet their affirmative duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe manner by conducting inspections. If, through reasonable care, landowners would have discovered the dangerous condition, they may be held liable.
In the case at hand, the appellate court stated the plaintiff’s argument had focused her allegations of liability on defective construction and negligent maintenance of the stairway. Unlike the premises liability case on which the trial court had relied, the plaintiff had not argued that the area was otherwise safe but that natural wear and tear had made it dangerous. The court stated that the evidence showed a reasonable inference could be drawn that the defendants created the allegedly dangerous condition, or that it remained under their exclusive control. In other words, the circumstances warranted imputing knowledge of the condition to the defendants.
Additionally, the court stated that simply because an accident had not taken place on the stairway does not show that an accident is not reasonably foreseeable. In other words, the appellate court stated that the defendants had not met their burden of showing they did not have constructive knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition.
Finally, the appellate court stated that the defendants had not shown that their inspections had been reasonable, as a matter of law. The plaintiff’s evidence had included an expert opinion that the nosing on the stairs posed a tripping hazard, one that would have been discovered by reasonable inspection.
Since the defendants moved for summary judgment, they were required to show that the plaintiff could not establish her cause of action. Since triable issues of material fact remained regarding whether a dangerous condition existed and whether the defendants knew of the dangerous condition, the court found the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment in the defendants’ favor.
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