California Appeals Court Reverses Grant of Summary Judgment to Defendant Landlords Following Tenant Fall
Appellant F.G. sued her landlords A.N. and N.Z. for negligence after she allegedly tripped on the metal “nosing” of a step and fell down a stairway in a common area of her apartment building. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding they lacked actual or constructive notice of any dangerous condition on the property and therefore did not breach their duty to exercise ordinary care. The appeals court reversed, concluding the record contained triable issues of material fact regarding whether the stairway constituted a dangerous condition and whether defendants had actual or constructive knowledge of such condition.
At her deposition, F.L. testified that on the morning of November 25, 2011, she left her apartment and started to walk down the stairway leading out to the front of the apartment building. As F.L. was stepping off the second or third step from the top of the stairway, her left foot caught on the metal strip or “nosing” at the edge of the step, causing her to fall and injure herself. F.L. had lived at the apartment building for approximately three years prior to the accident, and never had any problems with the stairway before her fall. She had never complained nor was she aware of anyone else complaining about the stairway.
The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, reasoning that actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition is “key” to establishing respondents’ liability. The court found no evidence establishing a dispute as to whether respondents had notice of any circumstances that would place them on reasonable inquiry that the stairway was dangerous. The court noted that whether a dangerous condition existed on the property remained a triable issue of fact, but that issue was rendered moot by respondents’ lack of actual or constructive notice. F.L. appealed.
On appeal, defendants did not argue that the alleged stairway defects were trivial as a matter of law, but rather focused their arguments on the lack of actual or constructive notice. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellant, the appeals court concluded that whether the stairway constituted a dangerous condition remained a triable issue of material fact. Although there was no evidence of a prior accident on the steps, and respondents’ safety expert concluded the metal nosing did not constitute a tripping hazard, appellant’s safety expert opined that the nosing was improperly installed and created a substantial fall hazard. Appellant set forth sufficient evidence such that reasonable minds could differ as to whether the stairway constituted a dangerous condition, therefore presenting triable issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.
The appeals court concluded defendants’ second argument for summary judgment–their alleged lack of actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition–warranted further review of the applicable premises liability standards. Generally, the appeals court explained, the landowner’s lack of knowledge of the dangerous condition is not a defense. Rather, he has an affirmative duty to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises in reasonably safe condition, and therefore must inspect them or take other proper means to ascertain their condition. And if, by the exercise of reasonable care, the landowner would have discovered the dangerous condition, he or she is liable.
Appellant predicated her theory of liability on the defective construction and negligent maintenance of the stairway by respondents. Based on the evidence in the record, the appeals court concluded, a reasonable inference could be drawn that the allegedly dangerous condition was either created by respondents or remained under their exclusive control. Under these circumstances, knowledge of the dangerous condition could be imputed to defendants.
Moreover, the appeals court held that even if it did not impute knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition to respondents based on the inference that they retained control over the common-area stairway, it could not conclude as a matter of law that defendants met their burden of showing they lacked constructive knowledge. Specifically, in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellant, the court could not conclude that defendants reasonable inspected the area as a matter of law.
In moving for summary judgment, the appeals court explained, defendants had an initial burden of showing that one or more elements of appellant’s cause of action could not be established. The record, however, contained triable issues of material fact regarding both whether the stairway nosing constituted a dangerous condition and whether respondents had actual or constructive knowledge of this allegedly dangerous condition. Accordingly, the appeals court concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in defendants’ favor.
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