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A Trivial Defect Remains a Jury Question

Two recent trial court decisions highlight Pennsylvania’s premises liability law regarding trivial defects. Kreitzer v. Madison Acquisitions, LLC, PICS Case No. 20-0425 (C.P. Lawrence April 9, 2020) and Jenkins v. Krenitsky’s Supermarket Corp., PICS Case No. 20-0424 (C.P. Lackawanna April 15, 2020) both involved defendant-property owners who moved for summary judgment arguing lack of notice and that any alleged defect was trivial thereby negating liability. In Kreitzer, the plaintiff fell due to an uneven sidewalk. The alleged defect was a one and a half inch change in elevation in the sidewalk. In Jenkins, the plaintiff fell in a pothole near the entrance of a supermarket. The plaintiff described the pothole as approximately two feet long and deep enough that both of her feet could be in the hole.

Both motions were similar in that both defendants argued there was no actual or constructive notice of any alleged defect. Additionally, both argued that any alleged defect was so trivial as to not warrant liability. In Kreitzer, the plaintiff argued that there was construction underway around the area of the fall that should have placed the defendant on notice of the change in elevation of the sidewalk. In Jenkins, the plaintiff argued that potholes do not form overnight and that it was right by the entrance so its existence should have been known through reasonable care. Interestingly, the defendant in Jenkins admitted that they had no policy to inspect the parking lot for defects and no regular inspections were conducted. In both cases, the defendants’ motions were denied as the courts found factual issues in each case for a jury to decide liability.

In Pennsylvania, “a sidewalk defect may be so trivial that a court must hold, as a matter of law, that the property owner was not negligent in allowing its existence.” Shaw v. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 80 A.3d 540, 542 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013).  In Shaw, the plaintiff fell due to an uneven sidewalk in front of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia. The change in elevation between sidewalk segments was allegedly between two and two and a half inches. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the trial’s court granting of summary judgment to the hospital as it found the question whether the sidewalk defect was trivial was for a jury. Ultimately, there is no bright-line rule to determine what would constitute “trivial” to impose liability. “Each case presents a unique set of circumstances that must be evaluated on an independent basis.” Id. at 545.

In both Kreitzer and Jenkins, the trial courts held that neither circumstance could be decided at the summary judgment stage and must be submitted to a jury. Specifically, in Jenkins the court held that the defect was not obviously trivial due to its size since the plaintiff was able to place both feet in the pothole, but held that the ultimate question was still a matter for a jury.

The Pennsylvania courts have not created a hardline rule in determining what is considered trivial. There is no hardline rule regarding size, length, or depth of a defect that would absolve a property owner of liability. It may be impossible for the courts to establish any hardline rules regarding the size of a defect to be considered trivial for summary judgment purposes due to all circumstances of an incident that must be considered. Regardless, a property owner still should have proper policies and procedures in place for inspections of its property to show evidence that reasonable care was used.

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