California Court of Appeal Affirms Holding in Favor of City Because Minor Defect in Sidewalk was Trivial

Following a judgment in favor of the City of Berkeley and a company that owns a market, the California Court of Appeal recently issued an opinion in a trip and fall lawsuit. The issue before the court was whether the defect in the sidewalk, a three-quarter of an inch offset, constituted a trivial defect.  Generally, property owners are not liable for injuries caused by trivial defects that would not injure a person using the sidewalk with ordinary care.

Plaintiff Helena Tiainen-Bennett tripped and fell at around 5:00 p.m. in April 2010 while walking on a sidewalk abutting the parking lot of a market owned by defendant KRGW Fujimoto LLC (KRGW).  It was dry on the surface area near the accident site, and the plaintiff alleged that her fall took place when her right foot hit an offset sidewalk slab. She fractured her knee and elbow and required surgery for both.

The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendants and alleged a cause of action against KRGW for negligent management of the property next to the sidewalk.  The plaintiff contended the City maintained a dangerous condition of public property.

In response, the defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the vertical height of the offset sidewalk where the plaintiff tripped was no more than three-quarters of an inch, which is legally a trivial defect and therefore cannot give rise to liability.  The trial court found that the facts showed the sidewalk offset was not a dangerous condition giving rise to either defendant’s liability. The court stated that the sidewalk defect was not bigger than three-quarters of an inch. The court also stated that there were no known accidents or complaints about that location before the accident.  The court granted the motions in favor of the defendants.

On review, the appellate court stated that the defendants met their burden on summary judgment.  The court referenced Government Code section 835, which states that a public entity can be held liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of property.  Dangerous conditions are those that create a substantial risk of injury, as opposed to minor or trivial risks of injury.

The court also stated that parties that maintain walkways do not have a duty to maintain them in perfect condition. In fact, a property owner’s duty of care does not require repairing minor defects. To determine whether a defect is trivial, the court stated a two-step rule.  First, the court looks at evidence showing the size and type of the defect.  If there is in fact a trivial defect, the court looks at additional factors.  If the additional factors do not indicate a reasonably careful person would find the defect sufficiently dangerous, the court deems the defect trivial as a matter of law and grants judgment for the landowner.  Additional factors might include the weather at the time of the accident, the lighting, or other debris.  If a defect is plainly visible, and others have used the area without injury, the defect is likely to be deemed trivial.

Here, the court stated that the offset in the sidewalk involved in the accident was not larger than three-quarters of an inch.  Even if it were larger, many courts have held that height differences of up to one and one-half inches are trivial.  Additionally, the court stated that the surrounding circumstances did not indicate the defect was sufficiently dangerous to create a substantial risk of injury.  The accident took place on a sunny, dry afternoon.  Finally, the court stated there had not been previous complaints or accidents arising from the defect.

The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s allegations that daytime shadows obscured her perception of the defect.  They also stated that there did not appear to be dirt or other debris obstructing the defect.  The court went on to state that tree roots often create distortions in a sidewalk, and a municipality cannot be expected to maintain sidewalks free from all obstructions. If generally the defect will not cause harm when the sidewalk is used with ordinary care, a city is not liable for injuries suffered from the defect.

The court concluded that there were no triable issues regarding the dangerousness of the defect.  The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The premises liability attorneys at Sharifi Firm help accident victims throughout Southern California. We are available for a free consultation. Contact our office at 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Appellate Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of City When Plaintiff Failed to Show Knowledge of Dangerous Condition of Sidewalk, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 13, 2016

California Court Finds Plaintiff Pursuing Premises Liability Claim Did Not Prove Property Owner Knew of Dangerous Condition of Stairwell, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, February 11, 2016

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