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CA Court Rules on Sidewalk Trip and Fall Injury Case

When people are injured while they are on the property of others, they may have legal grounds to file lawsuits when their injuries were caused by dangerous conditions about which the property owners knew about or should have reasonably known about. If a person is injured by a dangerous condition that exists on public property, the municipality, governmental agency, or another governmental body that owns the property may likewise be liable to pay damages. However, it may be more difficult to prove that a condition on public property is dangerous than a condition on private property. In Huckey v. City of Temecula, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. E070213, the court considered whether a plaintiff had met his initial burden of proving that a condition that existed on a public sidewalk was dangerous.

Factual and procedural background of the case

Charles Huckey was helping a real estate agent named Valentina N. who had an open house in the area of Rancho California Road and Meadows Parkway in Temecula on Dec. 12, 2015, somewhere between the times of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Huckey picked up some of Valentina’s signs, which he was carrying underneath his arms as he walked on the sidewalk close to the northeast corner of the intersection when he tripped over a raised area and fell, striking his head, hands, and arms. Huckey filed a lawsuit against the city of Temecula, alleging that the city had negligently failed to repair a dangerous condition that caused his injury. The city filed a motion for summary judgment and asked the court to dismiss Huckey’s lawsuit.

At the hearing on the city’s motion for summary judgment, the city argued that the defect in the sidewalk was trivial and did not rise to the level to be considered a dangerous condition. As evidence, the city cited Huckey’s testimony at his deposition that he was uncertain of whether he tripped with his left or right foot as well as the deposition testimony of the city’s expert witness, a mechanical engineer named Ned Wolfe.

Wolfe testified that he had measured the lift of the panel on Oct. 4, 2017. Since the panel had been ground down since Huckey’s fall, Wolfe used a level to determine the amount that it had been lifted at the time of the incident. He determined that the height difference ranged from 9/16 inch to one inch from three feet to one foot from the ride side of the sidewalk. He also testified that the greatest deviation of 3/4 inch to 1 inch only occurred in the right two feet of the diagonal. The city also cited as evidence the deposition testimony of Rodney T., who was a maintenance supervisor for the city. He testified that no other complaints of falls in the same area had been reported since 2010 other than Huckey’s.

Huckey argued that the city had not met its burden to show that the height difference was not a dangerous condition. He argued that the city was solely relying on the height differential to try to show that there was only a trivial defect rather than discussing other factors that made it a dangerous condition, including dirt, leaves, and the shadow from a nearby light pole on the area. Huckey tried to submit into evidence a photograph that he took on Jan. 3, 2016, several weeks after he fell. He testified that he had taken the picture around the same time that he had fallen. The picture showed dirt and leaves in the rise area and a shadow from the nearby light pole falling directly across the area. Huckey also cited as evidence testimony from Mark Burns, his expert. Burns testified that ADA standards required height differentials of 1/2 inch or more to be beveled. However, no one from the city knew about any city policy requiring workers to bevel down sidewalk height differentials of 1/2 inch or more.

The city replied by arguing that data from Huckey’s phone showed that he had taken the photo on Jan. 11 at 2:03 pm, which was not close to the time of day that Huckey had testified was when he had tripped and fallen. It argued that there was no evidence that dirt and debris were collected in that area on Dec. 12 or that Huckey had trouble seeing the height difference because of a shadow. The trial court agreed with the city and issued a preliminary order granting its motion for summary judgment. Huckey filed an appeal with the California Court of Appeals.

Issue: Whether the height difference was a trivial defect or a dangerous condition?

A defect that is considered to be trivial as a matter of law will not be considered to be a dangerous condition. The trial court found that the height difference between the sidewalk slabs was trivial and thus prevented the plaintiff from being able to meet one of the required elements. Huckey argued that the city had failed to show that the defect was not dangerous and appealed to the California Court of Appeals.

Rule: A condition on governmental property is considered dangerous only if its existence creates a substantial risk of injury when people use it in the manner in which it was intended.

A trivial defect is one that does not create a substantial risk of injury when people use the property in the manner in which it was intended to be used. The plaintiff argued that because the height difference exceeded the ADA guidelines, it was not trivial as a matter of law. The plaintiff also argued that the height difference violated a policy of the City of Temecula but did not point to any evidence that a policy existed.

Analysis

When a defendant moves for summary judgment, it has the burden to show that the plaintiff cannot meet the evidentiary requirements for one or more elements of the cause of action under Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 25 Cal.4th 107 (2001). If the defendant can meet its burden, the burden will then shift to the plaintiff to show that there is a material issue of triable fact.

The court looked at the city’s liability under the Government Claims Act, which states that the government will only be liable if there is a dangerous condition and not a trivial defect on the property. A condition is not considered to be dangerous unless it presents a substantial risk of injury to people who are reasonably using the property at the time of the injury. It then looked at the trivial defect doctrine. Under this doctrine, the court should not rely only on the defect’s size but should also consider other factors such as whether the sidewalk pieces were broken or jagged, whether dirt or debris obscured the pedestrian’s vision of the defect, whether the fall happened at night or day, whether any previous accidents had occurred, and the weather at the time of the accident.

Huckey had testified that it was sunny and bright at the time of his fall. He also testified that it had occurred between 3 pm and 5 pm. While he tried to enter his photo into evidence, the trial court had sustained the defendant’s objections because he did not establish when he took the photograph or whether it was at the same time of day as when he fell. The city’s witness had also testified that there had not been any previous accidents in the same area. The court ruled that the defendant had met its initial burden and that the plaintiff failed to show that there were any remaining issues of triable fact.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The case was dismissed, and the city was awarded its costs on appeal.

Contact the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers APC

If you have suffered an injury on public property because of a dangerous condition, you need to talk to an experienced personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles as soon as possible. The statute of limitations for governmental claims is much shorter than it is for other types of personal injury cases. A lawyer can also explain the burden that you will have and explain whether you have grounds to file a lawsuit. Contact Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers APC by calling us at (310) 592-0445.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2019/e070213.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2019-08-02-personal-injury-98dad63857&utm_content=text-case-read-more-6

https://www.justia.com/trials-litigation/docs/caci/1100/1102/

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/4th/25/107.html

https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&division=3.6.&title=1.&part=1.&chapter=&article=

https://www.victimslawyer.com/sidewalk-accident-claims-in-california.html

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