Anyone who follows the law (or, for that matter, reads this blog) must from time to time read about a case that seems… well, just so trivial.
What can we say? Lawyers have to eat, too, and some of our brethren and sistren in the bar will take some ridiculous cases, just because the monied defendant will pay nuisance value to make the case go away.
Sometimes, hard to believe, a case is too trivial even for the court. In today’s case, we review one of three fact patterns from three separate apparently trivial cases that were wrapped into a single New York Court of Appeals decision (the Court of Appeals being New York’s highest court). If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can go right to the decision and read about the other two cases included in the decision, both of which involved falling on staircases. The fact pattern we’re focusing on is sufficient to provide an excellent illustration of the trivial defect doctrine.
As the Court puts it in the decision’s preface, “it is usually more difficult to define what is trivial than what is significant.” The trivial defect doctrine differs from the ancient legal maxim “de minimis non curat lex,” which – as my beloved high school Latin teacher, Emily Bernges, would have explained – translates as “the law does not concern itself with trifling matters.” Usually, “de minimis non curat lex” applies when the injury is insignificant, i.e., a hotel guest asked for a king-size bed and got a queen-size bed instead. The trivial defect doctrine, on the other hand, applies where the injury is quite real, as in victim-plaintiff Lennie Hutchinson’s trip and painful fall over a small protrusion in the sidewalk. No one doubted that Lennie was good and truly hurt. Instead, the question was whether the defect he tripped over was trivial. Thus, the “de minimis non curat lex” situation attends where the defect is real but the injury is trifling. The trivial defect doctrine applies when the obverse is the case.
Certainly, at first blush it seems easy enough to dismiss Lennie Hutchinson’s complaint that he tripped over something a fraction of an inch wide and another fraction high. But as we’ll see, invoking the Trivial Defect Doctrine is not always easily done.
Hutchinson v. Sheridan Hill House Corp., 26 N.Y.3d 66, 19 N.Y.S.3d 802 (Ct.App. N.Y. 2015). Leonard Hutchinson was walking on a concrete sidewalk in the Bronx when his right foot “caught” on a metal object protruding from the sidewalk and he fell, sustaining injuries. Hutchinson sued Sheridan Hill House Corp., the owner of a building abutting the site of Leonard’s fall. Under New York City Administrative Code Sheridan was responsible for maintaining the sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition.
Leonard described the metal object as being “screwed on in the concrete” and gave rough estimates of its dimensions. Sheridan’s attorney had the sidewalk inspected, and found the object, cylindrical in shape, projected “between one eighth of an inch… and one quarter of an inch” above the sidewalk and was about five-eighths of an inch wide.
The trial court granted Sheridan summary judgment on the ground that it lacked notice of the defect. The appellate court affirmed, holding additionally that the metal object’s “minor height differential alone is insufficient to establish the existence of a dangerous or defective condition.”
Leonard took the case to New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Held: The defect Leonard complained of was trivial as a matter of law, and thus not actionable.
The Court said a defect alleged to have caused injury to a pedestrian may be trivial as a matter of law, but such a finding must be based on all the specific facts and circumstances of the case, not size alone. Indeed, a small difference in height or other physically insignificant defect is actionable if its intrinsic characteristics or the surrounding circumstances magnify the dangers it poses, so that it “unreasonably imperils the safety of” a pedestrian.
Liability does not turn on whether the hole or depression that causes a pedestrian to fall constitutes a trap. Many factors may render a physically small defect actionable, including a jagged edge, a rough, irregular surface, the presence of other defects in the vicinity, poor lighting or a location – such as a parking lot, premises entrance/exit, or heavily traveled walkway – where pedestrians are naturally distracted from looking down at their feet.
Liability from physically small defects are “actionable when their surrounding circumstances or intrinsic characteristics make them difficult for a pedestrian to see or to identify as hazards or difficult to traverse safely on foot,” the Court said. “Attention to the specific circumstances is always required.”
Finally, the Court said, under the trivial defect doctrine, a defendant seeking dismissal on the basis that the alleged defect is trivial must first show that the defect is, under the circumstances, physically insignificant and that the characteristics of the defect or the surrounding circumstances do not increase the risks it poses. Only then does the burden shift to the plaintiff to establish an issue of fact.
Sheridan met its burden by producing measurements indicating the metal protrusion was only about a quarter inch high and 5/8ths inch wide, together with evidence of the surrounding circumstances. Hutchinson tried to show features of the defect that would magnify the hazard it presented, arguing it had a sharp edge, was irregular in shape, and was firmly embedded in the sidewalk, so that “it could snag a passerby’s shoe.” Hutchinson argued he should not be required to look at his feet while walking on the sidewalk.
The Court was unimpressed. It said the characteristics Hutchinson identified were common to sidewalks. Instead, the Court said, the “relevant questions are whether the defect was difficult for a pedestrian to see or to identify as a hazard or difficult to pass over safely on foot in light of the surrounding circumstances.”
Here, the metal object protruding only slightly from the sidewalk, was in a well-lit location in the middle in the middle of the walk in a place where a pedestrian “would not be obliged by crowds or physical surroundings to look only ahead.” The object stood was not hidden or covered in any way so as to make it difficult to see. Its edge was not jagged and the surrounding surface was not uneven. Taking into account all the facts and circumstances presented, “including but not limited to the dimensions of the metal object,” the Court said, “we conclude that the defect was trivial as a matter of law.”
– Tom Root