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“Trivial Defect” Doctrine at the Center of Summary Judgment Win for International Coffee Company

Case Study

“Trivial Defect” Doctrine at the Center of Summary Judgment Win for International Coffee Company

An international coffee company secured a summary judgment in New York State Supreme Court dismissing a plaintiff’s complaint alleging injuries from a fall. The court’s 11-page decision adopted Goldberg Segalla’s argument based on the “trivial defect” doctrine — an important win for all retail, hospitality, and other businesses facing similar claims across the state.

Filed in Nassau County, the complaint alleged that the fall, which occurred as the plaintiff was leaving a restroom, was due to an excessive height difference between the bathroom tiles and the common-area tiles outside of the women’s bathroom. The plaintiff alleged that she sustained serious injuries in the fall, including a ninth-rib fracture, left patella fracture, and right wrist dislocation and fracture that required surgical intervention. The plaintiff also sought several thousand dollars in lost wages and special damages, while her husband sought additional compensation for spousal consortium and loss of economic and financial support.

Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants (our client, along with a contractor and a subcontractor who previously renovated the premises) failed to properly renovate and maintain the premises, and that the transition between the bathroom and the hallway was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 4.5.2. Goldberg Segalla’s Joseph M. Hanna, chair of the firm’s Retail and Hospitality practice, and associate Kenneth L. Bostick Jr., crafted a defense citing the “trivial defect” doctrine. The judge agreed, holding that the one-half to three-quarters-of-an-inch height differential was trivial, especially considering that the area was well-lit, and that there was a clear difference between the color and design of the tiles in the hallway and bathroom. The judge also noted that no other customer complained about or had an issue with the transition in the six years since the renovation, and that the plaintiff had no issue with the height differential when she entered the bathroom.

In its decision, the court further agreed that the plaintiff’s expert architect’s reliance on ADA standards and the website of the National Floor Safety Institute was misplaced, and — since the expert could not point to any specific code or regulation violation — the court rejected the expert’s opinion that the height difference was a dangerous condition. This decision affirming the “trivial defect” doctrine is a noteworthy win for retail and hospitality companies in New York State and beyond, and is instructive for in-house counsel and the defense bar. The result demonstrates the importance of focusing not just on the measurements of the alleged defect, but also on the surrounding environment and other contextualizing elements.

Goldberg Segalla’s Retail and Hospitality Practice Group

Goldberg Segalla’s Retail and Hospitality Practice Group offers strong defense, comprehensive counsel, and long-term strategic guidance to all types of retail, hospitality, and commercial development businesses. With the knowledge and resources to handle complex litigation and arbitration and provide sound risk-avoidance counsel, we also offer our clients all the benefits of a relationship with a firm that values teamwork and professionalism. Because of the power of that promise, the firm has established long-term relationships with numerous high-profile clients in the commercial development, shopping center, and retail industries, including several Fortune 100 companies, some of the world’s largest private and publicly traded owners and developers of shopping centers, national and international retailers, hotels and resorts, restaurants, convenience store chains, office and industrial parks, managers of commercial properties, and major North American fitness center brands.

To learn more, contact Retail and Hospitality co-chairs Joseph M. Hanna or Rodney J. Janis.