Liability of Landowners for Injuries Due to Trivial Defects
A recent case from the Second District Court of Appeals, Nunez v. City of Redondo Beach (7/27/22) 2022 WL 2965453), highlights the liability of landowners for injuries caused by minor defects in sidewalks and walkways. While most of the litigated cases involve government property, especially public sidewalks, the doctrine applies equally to non-governmental defendants. Ursing v. Big Boy Restaurants of America (1987) 192 Cal. App. 3d 394, 396-97. Note that the “trivial defect doctrine,” sometimes referred to as the “trivial defect defense,” is not an affirmative defense to be raised by the defendant, but rather is an aspect of duty that the plaintiff must plead and prove. Nunez v. City of Redondo Beach (2nd DCA 7/27/22) 2022 WL 2965453 *5; Huckey v. City of Temecula (2019) 37 Cal. App. 5th 1092, 1104; Cadam v. Somerset Gardens Townhouse HOA, supra, 200 Cal. App. 4th 383, 388-89.
Trivial Defect Doctrine and Its Application
The Government Code provides that a public entity may be held liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition on its property. But Government Code section 830(a) provides that a public entity is not liable for injuries caused by the condition of the property if the risk created by the condition was of such a minor, trivial, or insignificant nature in view of the surrounding circumstances that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury.
Case Analysis: Nunez v. City of Redondo Beach
In the case of Nunez v. City of Redondo Beach, 2022 WL 2965453 (2nd DCA 7/27/22), the plaintiff had finished a group run at Redondo Beach and was returning to her car when her back foot hit a raised sidewalk slab, causing her to trip and fall forward to the ground, fracturing her left kneecap and right elbow. The plaintiff brought suit against the City of Redondo Beach, alleging causes of action for dangerous condition of public property under Government Code section 835, negligence under Government Code section 815.2, and failure to perform a mandatory duty as provided by Government Code section 815.6.
Factors Influencing Triviality Determination
The court must consider all of the circumstances surrounding the accident that might make the defect more dangerous than its size alone would suggest. Aside from the size of the defect, the court should consider whether the walkway had any broken pieces or jagged edges and other conditions of the walkway surrounding the defect, such as whether there was debris, grease, or water concealing the defect, as well as whether the accident occurred at night in an unlighted area or some other condition obstructed the plaintiff’s view of the defect. The plaintiff’s knowledge of the area, the weather at the time of the accident, and whether the defect has caused any other accidents, are also factors courts have considered. Huckey, 37 Cal. App. 5th at 1105.
Legal Precedents and Defenses
Legal precedents like Ursing v. Big Boy Restaurants of America and Whiting v. City of National City establish the standards for evaluating trivial defects. Property owners are not held accountable for defects that do not pose a substantial risk of injury, emphasizing the need for thorough investigation and evidence in legal cases.
Recommendations for Legal Counsel
When plaintiff’s counsel is making a determination on whether to accept or prosecute a personal injury or wrongful death case based upon a defect in a sidewalk or other walkway, counsel is well advised to send an investigator out to the scene of the incident at approximately the same time of day as the potential client was injured to take measurements and photographs of the alleged defect and surrounding area. Municipalities and private insurers know the law and facts when it comes to trivial defects in sidewalks and will generally mount an aggressive defense.