Van Gelderen v. Hokin – First District Affirms Jury Verdict for Premises Liability Based Upon Location of Stairway in Relation to Door
Van Gelderen v. Hokin – 1-09-3152 (Cahill)
Facts: Plaintiff, a window covering installer, was injured when he fell down a stairway at the defendant’s home. As a person is exiting the home, the stairway is immediately to the right of a door that opens inward and has a door handle that is on the side of the door closest to the stairway. The distance from the side of the door to the first riser on the stairway is only 5 inches. At trial, Plaintiff’s expert witness, an architect, testified that the location of the door in relation to the stairway was unreasonably dangerous because most people when they encounter a door that opens inward will either step backward as they open the door or will step to the side of the door in the direction away from where it is moving. In this case, if the person opening the door moves to their right as the door is opening, the 5 inches of space before the first step on the staircase is insufficient and they are at risk of losing their balance and falling down the stairs, which is exactly what occurred with the plaintiff. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff but reduced the damages by 50% for contributory fault. The defendant moved for JNOV which was denied by the trial court and then appealed.
Holding: It is reasonable to conclude from the testimony of plaintiff’s expert witness that the configuration of defendant’s side entrance constitutes an unreasonably dangerous condition.
Filed In Trial Book Under: JNOV, Premises Liability, Stairways
Analysis: This is a very good result for the plaintiff, and I am especially impressed with the ability of the plaintiff’s attorney to put this case together. There is a strong dissenting opinion from Justice Garcia, who believed that summary judgment should have been granted at the outset such that the case never should have reached a jury. However, it seems from the language at the very outset of the holding that the majority saw it as a close call too. As the court states in the opinion:
“in reviewing a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, this court may not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. York, 222 Ill.2d at 178. Rather, its role is limited to deciding whether the evidence, when considered in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, fails to establish a necessary element of the plaintiff’s claim. See York, 222 Ill.2d at 178. The evidence here was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that plaintiff’s injury was caused by an unreasonably dangerous condition on defendant’s property.”
The opinion discusses two prior premises liability cases involving stairways,Alcorn v. Stepzinski, 185 Ill.App.3d 1 (1989) and Glass v. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., 238 Ill.App.3d 355 (1992), which basically hold that all stairways are dangerous and in order to establish liability for their configuration a plaintiff must establish that the dangerous condition was masked or obscured somehow. The majority opinion then distinguishes these cases based solely upon the fact that in this case the plaintiff presented expert testimony that the stairwell was unreasonably dangerous. Obviously, had the plaintiff not had an expert in the case, then the result would have been much different. What interested me most about the expert is that he was an architect, yet the crux of his opinion was basically a human factors analysis of what people do when confronted with a door. Apparently, the defendant had an expert that testified that the stairway and door configuration complied with the building code and was approved by the village. In my opinion, it’s tough to win a premises liability case without a building code violation, so the result here is all the more impressive. The opinion addresses a number of other issues, including the “open and obvious” defense, but I really only included this because I was impressed with the result on a very difficult case.