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Must One Remember How They Were Injured?

The California Court of Appeal was recently tasked with answering the following question:

Is a plaintiff barred as a matter of law from proving causation in a slip and fall case if there were no witnesses to the fall and he or she remembers being on stairs and then waking up in pain but does not remember the fall itself?

The Court answered “No. That is not the law in California.”

Let’s back up for some context.

The Defendant owned a residential property in the City of Hermosa Beach since 1972. The property has one bathroom, which has a two-step stairway leading up to a platform with a commode.

The stairway did not have a handrail.

Appellant’s sister, rented the property for approximately 18 years, and over that time the Appellant visited her sister on multiple occasions. Sometimes appellant would stay for as long as 10 days to two weeks. She used the bathroom during her visits, and did so without any mishaps.

In September 2014, while visiting her sister, appellant used the bathroom up to five times. At some point, the light to the bathroom stopped working. Appellant used the stairs, fell, and suffered injuries.

The appellant filed suit against the landowner for her injuries, alleging a dangerous condition of the property.  The landowner promptly filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing:

(1) she had no duty to warn appellant of the open and obvious dangerous stairs leading to the commode;

(2) she had no duty to remedy the open and obvious dangerous condition because she was never given notice that the stairs were dangerous or needed repair;

(3) she was not given notice that there was a problem with the bathroom light, which allegedly contributed to appellant’s fall;

(4) contrary to appellant’s position, the stairs did not violate any codes and Cassell did not have a statutory duty to change them because they were “grandfathered in” as a permissible nonconforming use under City of Hermosa Beach Municipal Code section 17.52.020; and

(5) there were no triable issues as to causation because appellant does not remember how she fell, and the only evidence of causation was Mazza’s deposition testimony that her worn out bath mat may have been the cause of appellant’s fall.

The trial court granted summary judgment, ruling, “When opposition to summary judgment is based entirely on inferences, such inferences must be ‘reasonably deducible from the evidence and not such as are derived from speculation, conjecture, imagination or guesswork.’ [Citation.] [Appellant] has no idea how she fell. Thus, even if [Cassell] breached some duty to maintain or repair the stairs (an issue the [trial court] declines to rule on), and even if the stairs were not [an] open and obvious [dangerous condition] (an issue the [trial court] also declines to rule on), [Cassell] met her initial burden to show [appellant] lacks evidence that the state of the stairs caused the fall, and [appellant] failed to raise a triable issue of material fact[.]”

The appellant appealed.  The Appellate Court reversed holding:

[T]he trial court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of defendant Shirley B. Cassell on the negligence complaint filed by Lydia Kaney (appellant). Though appellant cannot remember falling on Cassell’s stairs, the circumstantial evidence would permit a trier of fact to make a reasonable and probable inference that the condition of the stairs, including the absence of a handrail, was a substantial factor in the fall.

This ruling really, is common sense.  We at Heiting & Irwin have handled many cases over the years where the severity of the client’s injuries prevents them from having a clear memory or understanding of the mechanism of injury.  If the state of the law was that one had to remember how the incident occurred, many severely injured parties would be precluded from bringing a claim for these injuries.

If you, or a loved one, have been injured due to the dangerous conditions of property, you should consult with the highly-rated, experience premises liability attorneys at Heiting & Irwin.

*Case referred to and quoted is (Kaney v. Custance (Jan. 21, 2022, No. B302835) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 48].)


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