Broad Application of Summary Judgment Standard in Plaintiff’s Favor Tests Limits of Premises Liability Claims

Carol Frie was walking from the parking lot toward the mall when she stepped onto the sidewalk from the parking lot surface. While she did not know what element of the sidewalk caused her fall, she stated that it was “unkempt.” In Frie v. Fairlane Village Mall, 2020 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2848 (Sept. 9, 2020), the issue in the appellate court was whether Ms. Frie, who could not specifically identify the portion of the sidewalk that caused her fall, raised a genuine issue of material fact to defeat the Mall’s motion for summary judgment.

In October, 2014, Ms. Frie parked her car in the parking lot of the Fairlane Village Mall in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and walked across the parking lot towards the Mall. She testified that she was looking straight ahead as she stepped onto the sidewalk and she fell due to, what her answers to interrogatories stated broadly stated was “unkempt property.” She reported the incident to an employee of the Mall’s manager who took photographs of the area at which Ms. Frie said she fell. Ms. Frie agreed the photos showed the area she fell. The employee said that she took photos of that specific area because that was where Ms. Frie pointed; the employee noticed a “little lip” in the sidewalk in the area where Ms. Frie pointed and she felt she needed to show how much of a lip existed by taking a close up photograph. She then stated that she wrote in an incident report that Ms. Frie had told her she “tripped over the uneven sidewalk and fell;” “uneven sidewalk” being the employee’s own words. The employee said Ms. Frie only pointed to the sidewalk in general and the employee, finding the “little lip,” assumed it was the cause of her fall. Ms. Frie agreed with this assertion.

On these facts, the trial court granted the Mall’s motion for summary judgment. The court relied on case law that states, though property owners have a duty to keep their sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition for travel for the public and business invitees, in order to establish liability, someone who falls on a sidewalk “must prove what actually caused the accident, not what might possibly have caused it.” The court found that because Ms. Frie could not identify the cause of her accident, she could not prove what actually caused her fall.

The appellate court reversed this decision. The appellate court found that the trial court failed to apply the proper standard on summary judgment, to construe the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Ms. Frie. The appellate court saw that the employee’s claims that Ms. Frie showed her where she tripped, the photographs of the uneven sidewalk, the incident report that stated Ms. Frie tripped over an uneven sidewalk and, especially, Ms. Frie’s agreement with everything the employee had stated required a jury to determine whether the uneven sidewalk caused Ms. Frie’s fall or that Ms. Frie could not specifically identify the “little lip” as the cause of her fall. This is a broadly important determination because, despite case law specifically requiring a plaintiff to identify what caused their fall, a general claim can present a factual issue as to what portion of the sidewalk caused a fall in order to defeat a summary judgment motion.

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