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Appellate Division Finds That Homeowner May Be Responsible For Her Sister’s Fall Due to a Negligently Maintained Handrail

By on October 4, 2019 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Dawn O’Neill claimed to have suffered a serious injury when she fell down the exterior steps of her sister’s home due to a negligently maintained handrail.  The trial court had granted summary judgment to the defendants (plaintiff’s sister and her brother-in-law), determining that they did not breach any duty owed to plaintiff and that the guardrail on the exterior stairs was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s fall.  The issue in O’Neill v. Neusch, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1837 (App. Div. August 29, 2019), was whether the trial court overlooked disputed issues of material facts, which should have precluded the grant of summary judgment to defendants.

The plaintiff’s fall occurred during a visit to the Cranford home of her sister Linda Neusch and her brother-in-law Robert Neusch.  The plaintiff had visited her sister on a regular basis, about once a week for about 10 years.  Plaintiff spent the afternoon and evening with her sister and brother-in-law, did laundry, and had dinner with them.  Plaintiff’s accident happened as she left the home.

In leaving the home, she had to walk down five steps between the door and the ground.  There were handrails on each side of the steps.   The plaintiff attributed her fall to an unstable handrail.  As she walked out of the door, she had her laundry in her right hand and, as she grabbed the handrail, it shifted and gave way.  The entire railing did not come loose but she described it as a “reasonable shift.”  The plaintiff’s brother, who witnessed the plaintiff’s fall, examined the handrail after her fall and described it as “extremely loose and wobbly.”  Further, he stated that it was unstable and he could see why it did not give the plaintiff any support.

While the plaintiff over the years noticed some issues with the handrails, she did not describe them as “severe” issues.  When she saw that they had been re-cemented and were a little bit loose, she stated that it would not be anything that she would question.  The plaintiff’s brother-in-law admitted to prior problems with the handrails.  He had testified that water would collect around the posts, which would make the supporting concrete tend to crack and he would have to patch it.  If the cracks occurred, the handrails would not be held as securely as they should be and they would create a wobble.  Both plaintiff’s sister and brother-in-law (the defendants) did admit to issues with the handrail before her accident but were not aware of any problem with the handrail at the time of her accident.

The Appellate Division noted that the plaintiff qualified as a social guest.  As such, the homeowner had no obligation to make his/her home safer for his/her guest then for himself/herself.  There was also no duty to inspect the premises to discover defects that might cause injury to his/her guests.  However, under New Jersey law, if “the host knows or has reason to know of some artificial or natural condition on the premises which could pose an unreasonable risk of harm to his/her guest and that his/her guest could not reasonably expected to discover it, the owner/occupier owes the social guest a duty to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe or to give warning to his/her guest of its presence and the risk involved.”

The Appellate Division, in construing the facts as most favorable to the plaintiff, which is the standard for a summary judgment motion, found that a reasonable jury could infer that the defendants either knew, or had reason, to know of the dangerous condition caused by the loose railings.  They admitted that the winter weather conditions caused the cracking in the cement.  The Court noted that the defendants lived in the home and used the exterior stairs frequently, perhaps daily, and there was a reasonable inference “that they were aware the railings were not secured and would move when gripped.”  Moreover, it was undisputed that the defendants did not inform the plaintiff about the condition of the handrails.  Further, the plaintiff testified that she was not aware of the extremely loose and wobbly condition of the railing before her accident.             

The Appellate Division found that a jury could readily infer that based upon plaintiff’s description of the accident, her fall was proximately caused by the loose railing.  After considering all these facts, the Appellate Division held that there were genuine disputes of material facts concerning liability and proximate cause which must be decided by a jury.  Thus, the Appellate Division reversed the summary judgment and remanded the matter back for trial.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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