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Court of Appeals Finds that “Stairway” was the Functional Equivalent of a “Sidewalk”

In the case of Hinton v. Village of Pulaski, a majority of the New York Court of Appeals found that a stairway is a functional equivalent to a sidewalk as it pertained to local village law.  The case arose out of a fall that the plaintiff had while descending an exterior stairway leading from a municipal parking lot to a public road. The plaintiff did not provide written notice of the fall to the Village, but subsequently commenced an action against the Village.

Following the commencement of the action, the Village moved for summary judgment arguing that they did not receive proper notice of the claim.  Specifically, the Village argued that pursuant to Village Law §6-628, they were not provided with prior written notice of the injury.  Under Village Law §6-628, prior written notice must be provided to the Village in a personal injury action arising out of a deficit in “any street, highway, bridge, culvert, sidewalk or crosswalk.”  In their opposition to the motion, the Plaintiff argued that the injury did not occur on any of the enumerated areas, and therefore, prior written notice was not required. The trial court granted the Village’s motion for summary judgment and the Appellate Division affirmed.

On appeal, a majority of the Court relied on their analysis in their prior decision of Woodson v. City of New York, which held that a stairway can be classified as a sidewalk under a prior notice statute if it “functionally fulfills the same purpose that a standard sidewalk would serve on flat topography, except that it is vertical instead of horizontal.”  The majority recognized that the lower courts had applied this standard in coming to their decision.  They did not find any reason to overrule the prior precedent. Therefore, the Court of Appeals upheld the Order granting summary judgment and dismissing the Complaint.

Two Judges dissented from the decision of the majority.  Judges Wilson and Fahey disagreed with the majority opinion for not considering a plain reading of the statute.  The Judges criticized the majority for “rewriting” the law at issue because it specifically did not include stairways in the statute.  The Judges continued by reviewing the Woodson decision relied on by the majority.  The dissenting Judges read the Woodson decision not as extending the statute to cover sidewalks, but instead, read the case as recognizing the stairs had the same injury potential as a sidewalk.  Therefore, in their opinion, a decision that the stairs were not included in the statute would not be overruling the Woodson decision.

To read a full copy of the decision click here.

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