Recent Premises Liability Cases in New York’s 9th Judicial District

Owners of real property owe a duty of care to people invited onto their property under the legal theory of “premises liability,” a common-law doctrine derived from the theory of negligence (i.e., the absence of ordinary care). Premises liability generally holds that a property owner has a duty to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition, and may be liable for injuries caused by a hazardous condition. The “trivial defects” doctrine is an important exception to New York premises liability. It holds that a property owner is not liable if the defect, when examined in light of the unique circumstances of the site, is not objectively dangerous. The New York Court of Appeals has held on several occasions that this is a question of fact best left to a jury. Courts in New York’s 9th Judicial District, whose jurisdiction consists of Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, and Rockland Counties, have considered several claims recently involving the trivial defect doctrine, and have often sided with plaintiffs.

In a negligence claim, a plaintiff has the burden of proving four elements. First, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed a duty of care, either to the plaintiff or the general public. Second, they must demonstrate that the defendant breached this duty of care. Third, they must show that this breach was the cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries. Finally, the plaintiff must substantiate measurable damages resulting from their injuries.

Premises liability involves a particular duty of care, from a property owner to individuals who have been invited onto the property. In some situations, such as the “attractive nuisance” doctrine, this duty of care also extends to trespassers. A plaintiff must show that the property owner knew or should have known about a defect or hazard on the property, and that they breached their duty of care by failing to repair the defect, insufficiently repairing it, or failing to warn visitors about it.

The Court of Appeals described the trivial defect doctrine in a 1997 decision, Trincere v. Suffolk Cty. It held that there is no “per se rule that a defect must be of a certain minimum height or depth in order to be actionable.” Instead, each case depends on its own “peculiar facts and circumstances.” The court also held, however, that sometimes “the trivial nature of the defect may loom larger than another element.” In 2015, the Court of Appeals expanded on the trivial defect doctrine in Hutchison v. Sheridan Corp., finding “that it is usually more difficult to define what is trivial than what is significant.”

Courts in the 9th Judicial District seem unwilling to dismiss premises liability claims based on a trivial defect defense, preferring to let a jury decide. The 2nd Department of the Appellate Division, which covers the 9th Judicial District, reversed a ruling from Dutchess County granting summary judgment in Polizani v. Culinary Inst. of Am. It held that competing affidavits from an architect and a professional engineer created a triable issue of fact as to whether a defect was “trivial.” A Supreme Court ruling from Westchester County, Aviles v. Putnam Park Properties, reached a similar conclusion. It also expressed a preference for “non-actionable defect” over “trivial defect.”

If you have suffered injuries because of a dangerous condition on someone’s property, you may be entitled to damages. Regardless of the circumstances of your accident, the experienced New York injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Mark A. Siesel can answer your questions and address your concerns. Please contact us today at 914-428-7386 or online to schedule a free consultation to discuss your legal rights and options.

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