• Trivial/Deminimis Defects Clarified
  • May 5, 2003 | Authors: Howard P. Dwoskin; Patrick E. Bailey
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Philadelphia Office
  • Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court clarified the standard in defining trivial and de-minimis sidewalk defects. Under the specific facts of Cline v. Statler, 726 A.2d 1073 (Pa. Super. 1998), the court ruled that trivial/de-minimis sidewalk defects are not actionable at law and awarded summary judgment to the defendant.

    In Cline, the plaintiff, a 78-year old widow, claimed that she tripped over a raised portion of a public sidewalk located at the expansion joint between two pavement blocks. One pavement block was estimated to be elevated two to three inches higher than the level of the adjoining block. No actual measurement of the sidewalk was made and, thus, the court relied on photographs taken by plaintiff's daughter a few days after the fall. Unfortunately, the sidewalk was repaired soon after the accident leaving only the pictures and the parties' claims and memories as evidence of the true defect. The plaintiff's injuries included a fracture to her nasal bone and to her left distal radius, as well as severing of her ethmoid artery. The plaintiff was admitted to a local hospital for a period of ten days, five of which were spent in intensive care. After her discharge, she suffered a debilitating stroke which she claimed was caused by the trauma of her fall.

    The defendants, including the Borough of Gettysburg, moved for summary judgment after discovery was completed alleging that the defect which caused the injuries was so trivial in nature that it was not actionable as a matter of law. The trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the defects were de-minimis, and the defendants had no duty to remedy such trivial defects. The plaintiff appealed the trial court's ruling.

    On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed and acknowledged that there is no mathematical equation which can be applied to sidewalk defect cases to determine when a defect is "trivial."

    Citing previous cases, the court stated that imperfections in sidewalks are acceptable and will only become actionable once they exceed a trivial nature. Thus, the Superior Court held that permitting the jury to impose liability based on the defect presented in the photographs supplied by the plaintiff "would mean an extremely high percentage of sidewalks in Pennsylvania currently contained actionable defects." Indeed, "It is not the purpose of this body of law to turn landowners and municipalities into guarantors of pedestrian safety." Cline v. Statler, Supra at 6. Further, the court stated that "we have viewed the photographs and agree that, although there was a deviation in the sidewalk, the deviation was not substantial and should not have been provided any significant impairment to safe traversal." Id. at 5.

    As such, the court held that the trial court did not err in deciding as a matter of law that the sidewalk was not in an unreasonably dangerous condition. Therefore, the trial court's award of summary judgment was affirmed.

    The Superior Court found support for its decision in many cases which provided precedence and guidance in answering the trivial defect question. First, in Bosack v. Pittsburgh Railway Company, 410 Pa. 558, 189 A.2d 877 (Pa. 1963), the court ruled that "as a matter of law, there was no negligence/liability if the defect in question was trivial in nature which, in that case, was measured to be a one-and-a-half inch to two inch depression in the cobblestones. Also, in Harrison v. City of Pittsburgh, 353 Pa. 22, 44 A.2d 273 (Pa. 1945), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a manhole, which projected two inches above surrounding sidewalk, could not be a basis for liability. Similarly, in McGlynn v. City of Philadelphia, 322 Pa. 478, 186 A.2d 747, the court granted a non-suit and ruled that no liability can be predicated on a one and one-half inch difference between the levels of two abutting curbstones as it was "de-minimis."

    With the recent Cline decision, the trial courts are now empowered with a more modern and up-to-date standard with which to evaluate whether negligence claims based on defective and unreasonably dangerous sidewalks are well grounded in law and whether they possess the merit to be put to a jury.

    Prior to this decision, the most recent case ruling that trivial defect was not actionable at law was in 1963, in Bosack v. Pittsburgh Railways Company, supra. Often times plaintiffs and courts alike have expressed reservations on making a decision based on that old ruling. The common plaintiff's argument had been that public opinion and attitudes have changed over the years regarding what should be considered a trivial or de minimis defect. Similarly, the law must reflect those changes. More importantly, opinions have changed as to whether landowners and municipalities should be held liable for those defects. Moreover, a common question has been whether landowners and municipalities should be held liable for sidewalk defects which are open and obvious to the public.

    Of note, the prevalent view and attitude in recent years has been that landowners and municipalities are liable for all sidewalk defects of which they had prior knowledge. Further, though these sidewalk defects may have been open and obvious to the public, it gave little reprieve to landowners and municipalities. All too often landowners and municipalities were found negligent and liable for any alleged injuries resulting from those open and obvious trivial defects on their properties.

    The Cline v. Statler ruling may be an important decision in that it could be a move by the court to shift the scales back to the center. Trial courts now have a more up-to-date precedent on which to base their rulings that cases should not go to the jury.

    However, it must be noted that the court in Cline was forced to make a ruling based only on photographs and the witnesses' recollections. There were no measurements made to aid the court. As such, it is anticipated that plaintiff's attorney will argue that a two inch to three inch defect in this case was merely an estimate and not a strict ruling by the court. However, Cline is still a good case for the defense to cite when arguing trivial defect. Even without specific measurements, Cline stands for the proposition that minor or trivial imperfections in sidewalks that cause injuries are not actionable as a matter of law.