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Unmarked is unsafe

Visitor to law firm wins $60K for trip and fall

Peter Vieth//April 16, 2018

Unmarked is unsafe

Visitor to law firm wins $60K for trip and fall

Peter Vieth//April 16, 2018

doors_mainA woman injured in a fall as she left a Richmond law firm has won a $60,000 jury verdict against the owner of the building in the city’s historic Shockoe Slip.

Even though a judge blocked the plaintiff from use of two liability experts, the jury determined that an unmarked step in an exterior doorway was an unsafe condition that the owner should have known about. The jury also found that the claim withstood a contributory negligence defense.

Richmond Circuit Judge Clarence N. Jenkins Jr. upheld the verdict April 4 in a seven-page order in the case of Stanley v. 12th Street Commercial Block LLC (VLW 018-8-030).

Judge Bradley B. Cavedo excluded the plaintiff’s liability experts last March in VLW 017-8-034. The case was nonsuited after that ruling, but the experts were excluded in the refiled action, according to the plaintiff’s counsel.

‘Camouflaged’ step

The building at the corner of Cary Street and Shockoe Slip has a side entrance that requires a step up to enter. The side door provides entry to two major law firms, ThompsonMcMullan and Moran Reeves & Conn.

Plaintiff Betty Stanley was visiting ThompsonMcMullan on May 6, 2015, according to her attorney, John R. Newby. She accompanied by at least two companions, according to the judges’ accounts.

As they entered the building, one of Stanley’s companions tripped on the step. Another companion said he could understand why it would be hard to notice the step if not “acutely aware” of it from entering.

When the group left the building, Stanley tripped and fell.

Experts rejected

In the original action, Stanley’s lawyer designated human factors expert Dr. Michael Maddox and structural engineer Dano Holland to testify that the step was a tripping hazard for various reasons.

Opinions that the step was a trip hazard and that Stanley would have had difficulty perceiving the hazard were matters “firmly within the common experience of the average person,” Cavedo ruled.

“When reduced to essentials, the question is whether a step in the sidewalk was safe. At the very least, this is a subject that ordinary people are capable of comprehending, forming an intelligent opinion about, and drawing their own conclusions from,” Cavedo wrote last March.

Even the “optical illusion” that the surface of the vestibule and the surface of the sidewalk appear to be on the same level was evident from viewing in person and in photographs, without expert help, the judge said.

An opinion that the step violated national standards was excluded as “irrelevant, misleading, and unduly prejudicial.” The national standards were not the law in Virginia, Cavedo said.

Other opinions about warnings and inspections invaded the province of the jury, the judge said.

Verdict upheld

A jury heard the refiled case on March 13 and awarded $60,000. Jenkins, the presiding judge, rejected the defendant’s post-trial allegations of insufficient evidence and contributory negligence.

Photographs largely made the case, Jenkins said. “These photographs show that the step, which was cloaked in heavy sunlight, would be invisible to an individual exercising ordinary care in attempting to exit the building,” he wrote.

The doorway was constructed about 30 years before and served as an entrance to several law firms and retailers on the upper floors of the building. Therefore, Jenkins said, the hazard existed long enough to create a duty for the owner to discover it through ordinary care.

The danger was particularly clear from outside, he said. Stanley’s witnesses said “the doorway’s step was open and obvious for individuals entering the building although certain outside elements thoroughly camouflaged the step for individuals exiting the building,” according to the judge.

Evidence as to Stanley’s possible contributory negligence was in conflict, Jenkins said. Witnesses gave differing accounts about whether she was engaged in conversation as she exited and whether she was carrying certain items.

Outside conditions served to conceal the hazard, the plaintiff’s evidence showed. Jenkins said the issue was properly resolved by the jury.

Newby declined additional comment since the verdict could be appealed. Defense attorney John A. Merrick of Richmond did not respond to a request for comment.

No appeal had been noted as of April 11, according to online court records.

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