Court Finds Issues of Fact as to Whether 0.5-Inch Defect Was a “Trap” or Snare” and Hence Not “Trivial”

In Shane v. Supervova New York Realty LLC (NY Sup. July 8, 2013), a stairway trip-and-fall case, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding triable issues of fact as to whether an outside stairway defect was “trivial”.

Plaintiff, a guest at a NYC Sheraton Hotel, tripped on the stairs ascending to the landing leading to the hotel doors.  Plaintiff fell on the second step from the top when the front of his boot became caught in a space where two pieces of granite joined; the height differential of the two pieces was approximately one-half inch.

Plaintiff’s expert opined that “the defect is the type that can cause a person to catch his foot or shoe and fall” and noted that the defect was in a highly-trafficked, poorly-lit area (which made its observation or detection difficult). He therefore concluded that defendant failed to maintain its property in a safe condition in violation of sections 27-127 and 27-128 of the New York City Building Code, and Article 1, Section 27-2005 of the Housing Maintenance Code of the City of New York.

Defendant argued that “the alleged defect is trivial, that no reasonable person would foresee it as a hazard, and that plaintiff has offers no evidence that the alleged defect presents a foreseeable hazard.”

Plaintiff responded that there were genuine issues of material fact as to defendant’s negligence in failing to maintain the steps properly and that factors other than the height differential – such as the volume of traffic around the defect and its poor illumination – should be considered.

The court found that defendant established a prima facie case that the approximately 0.5-inch defect was indeed trivial:

[T]he owner of a public passageway may not be cast in damages for negligent maintenance by reason of trivial defects on a walkway, not constituting a trap or nuisance, as a consequence of which a pedestrian might merely stumble, stub his toes, or trip over a raised projection. Whether a defect in a sidewalk is trivial does not depend solely on its dimensions. Rather, whether a dangerous or defective condition exists on the property of another so as to create liability depends on the peculiar facts and circumstances of each case and is generally a question of fact for the jury. Even a trivial defect may constitute a snare or trap.

However, defects of one-half-inch in height differential have been held to be trivial, in the absence of any evidence showing that the defect presented a significant hazard by reason of location, adverse weather or lighting conditions, or other circumstances giving the defect the characteristics of a trap or snare. Thus, to the extent that it is undisputed that the defect measured approximately a half-inch in height, defendant established, prima facie, that the defect was trivial and therefore not actionable.

This did not end the inquiry, however.  The court held that plaintiff’s expert’s testimony “demonstrates the existence of triable issues as to whether the defect had the characteristics of a trap or snare, as its dimensions permitted a person to catch his or her foot in it, and the area was heavily-trafficked and poorly illuminated.”

The court therefore denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

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