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Van Auken v. Adamkiewicz

May 19, 2009

JAMES W. VAN AUKEN PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOSEPH A. ADAMKIEWICZ AND DONNA J. ADAMKIEWICZ, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

In this diversity action, plaintiff James W. Van Auken seeks damages for injuries he sustained when he fell down the rear staircase of defendants' residence, allegedly due to their negligence. Pending is defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted and Van Auken's action is dismissed in its entirety.

II. Facts*fn1

In 1975, defendants Joseph and Donna Adamkiewicz purchased their home in Ghent, New York. (See Def. SMF ¶ 4; Dkt. No. 7:18.) The home was built in 1847. Id. at ¶ 3. The Adamkiewiczes have not substantially altered the layout of the home beyond the expansion of their kitchen and the addition of a porch and garage sometime between 1985 and 1990, for which two building permits were issued. (See Def. SMF ¶ 5; Dkt. No. 7, 1985 &1989 Building Permits; Dkt. No. 8.) The residence has a front and rear staircase which lead to the second floor. The rear staircase is made of wood with a single wooden handrail on one side and twelve risers. (See Def. SMF ¶ 31; Dkt. No. 7.) The handrail in the rear staircase was installed in 1985, replacing a previous handrail at the same location. Id. at ¶¶ 6, 7. The Adamkiewiczes did not otherwise significantly alter the rear stairwell. Id. at ¶ 6. In the second floor hallway of the Adamkiewiczes' home, there is an overhead light near the upstairs bathroom. Id. at ¶ 11. The rear stairwell is directly adjacent to the upstairs bathroom, and the upstairs hallway light provides sufficient illumination of the stairwell to observe and avoid it when entering the bathroom. Id. at ¶¶ 13, 14, 16. The light is operable by two switches, one at the base of the front stairs and one at the top of the front stairs. Id. at ¶¶ 9, 10. The upstairs hall light and both switches were in working order at the time of the accident. Id. at ¶¶ 15, 17. Prior to November 26, 2005, there had been no falls on the rear staircase, reports of difficulties with the staircase or light switches, or complaints about the illumination in the second floor hallway. Id. at ¶¶ 32-35.

Van Auken was an overnight guest at the Adamkiewiczes' home over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 2005, and was staying on the second floor. Id. at ¶¶ 18, 20. On the evening of November 26, 2005, Van Auken ascended the front stairs to use the upstairs bathroom. Id. at ¶ 23. Van Auken did not turn on the upstairs hallway light prior to going up the stairs, as he has testified he did not know where the switches were located. (See Van Auken Dep. 36:4-10; Dkt. No. 7:4.) Nor did he look for a light switch upon reaching the upstairs hallway. Id. at 39:16-40:1. As such, the second floor was dark when Van Auken reached the top step. (See Def. SMF ¶ 26; Dkt. No. 7.) However, he could see the closed bathroom door and started towards it. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 28. As he reached for the bathroom door he fell down the rear staircase, seriously injuring himself. Id. at ¶ 29. He did not attempt to grasp the handrail of the rear staircase while he fell. Id. at ¶ 30.

Van Auken filed this action on November 19, 2007, seeking one million dollars in damages under a theory of negligence. (See Dkt. No. 1.) The Adamkiewiczes have moved for summary judgment dismissing Van Auken's action on grounds that they did not breach any duty, any breach of duty was not the proximate cause of Van Auken's injury and they had no notice of any defective condition. (See Dkt. No. 7.)

III. Standard of Review

The standard for the grant of summary judgment is well-established, and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its previous opinion in Bain v. Town of Argyle, 499 F. Supp. 2d 192, 194-95 (N.D.N.Y. 2007).

IV. Discussion

Because this is a diversity action based upon events occurring in New York, New York substantive law applies. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332; Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 71-80 (1938). Under New York law, "a landowner has a duty to maintain his property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances." Clinton v. Johnson, 167 A.D.2d 772, 772-73 (3d Dep't 1990) (citing Basso v. Miller, 40 N.Y.2d 233, 241 (1976)). Where, as here, a negligence claim is asserted under a theory of premises liability, the plaintiff must present evidence that "the landowner control[led] the property, that a defect exist[ed], and that the defect cause[d] plaintiff's injuries." McHale v. Westcott, 893 F. Supp. 143, 147 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (Pooler, J.) (citing Turrisi v. Ponderosa, Inc., 179 A.D.2d 956 (3d Dep't 1992)). In the present instance, there is no dispute that the Adamkiewiczes owned the residence in which Van Auken's injuries occurred. As such, the court will focus on the parties' arguments regarding the defect and causation elements.

A. Defects

Van Auken proffers numerous defects in the Adamkiewiczes' home at the time of his fall which purportedly caused his fall and attendant injuries. He asserts that the second floor hallway was insufficiently illuminated to see the rear staircase, and hints at a generalized dissatisfaction with the light switches at the base and top of the front staircase. (See Kelly Aff. ¶¶ 5, 18; Dkt. No. 8.) Additionally, Van Auken contends the proximity of the bathroom to the rear staircase created a trap. (See Van Auken Mem. at 3; Dkt. No. 9.) Van Auken further points out that the Adamkiewiczes' expert, Chet Zaremba, testified that numerous aspects of the rear stairwell did not comply with the Town of Ghent's 2007 building code. Specifically, light switches were absent from the immediate base and top of the rear staircase. (See Kelly Aff. ¶¶ 10, 16, 18, 21; Dkt. No. 8, Zaremba Dep. 35-37; Dkt. No. 7:11.) The railing in the rear stairwell was also of an improper circumference, did not extend to the very top of the rear stairs and was at least 1 1/2 inches lower than code. (See Kelly Aff. ¶¶ 15, 17, 21; Dkt. No. 8, Zaremba Dep. 12-13, 24-25; Dkt. No. 7:11.) Finally, the risers in the rear ...


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