Slips, Trips and Falls - Sidewalk Defects - Trivial And De Minimis - Whose Responsibility Are They Really?

While property owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care not to endanger the safety of others lawfully using the sidewalks abutting their premises, generally a property owner cannot be held liable for trivial or de minimis defects in those sidewalks. This is because a property owner is not an insurer of the safety of those using sidewalks in a business invitee commercial context and is not called on to maintain the property to perfection.

Rather, to hold a landowner liable for injuries sustained in a trip, slip and fall a plaintiff must establish a breach by the landowner to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. Liability therefore is established where the owner either created the unreasonably safe condition or, had notice of the risk, and nonetheless allowed it to persist. If the alleged defect is trivial then that de minimis defect must be considered when deciding the issue of liability.

Recently, in Reinoso v. Heritage Warminister SPE LLC, 2015 Pa. Super. 8 (Jan. 14, 2015), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania discussed the "trivial or de minimis" standard that allows a landowner to escape liability where a passerby is injured as a result of a trip, slip and fall. Reinoso involved a grandmother, Guadalupe Reinoso and her 5-year-old granddaughter, who were walking hand in hand when both tripped on a raised section of the sidewalk they were traveling on. The grandmother, who suffered injuries from the fall, brought suit against the landowner to recover for the damages she sustained.

The landowner filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the complaint as a matter of law. The landowner argued that assuming the defect in the sidewalk existed as alleged, it was trivial or de minimis and thus the landowner could not under the law be held responsible for the grandmother's damages.

The trial court agreed and granted the landowner's motion dismissing the case.

Reinoso appealed. On appeal, a divided panel affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment. The Superior Court, however, granted reargument en banc. And, after doing so, the Superior Court reviewed the standard of care owed to a trespasser, licensee and a business invitee (like Reinoso) who the Superior Court recognized the landowner owes the highest duty.

A business invitee, the Court explained, can expect that a property owner will take reasonable care to know the condition of his property and if a defect is identified, either make repairs to make the property safe or give warning and notice of the risk presented. If the defect is trivial or de minimis, then the property owner will not be liable. On the other hand, where the defect is not obviously trivial then the question must be presented to the jury. Thus, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's entry of summary judgment and remanded the case back for further proceedings.

So if you are a property owner, while perfection is not required, be alert and aware to take reasonable steps to inspect your property and specifically variations, depressions or other undulations that may appear trivial or de minimis. If you are the victim of a trip, slip or fall, take heed and contact an experienced personal injury attorney - contact the personal injury attorneys at The Pagano Law Firm, and schedule a free consultation.