Camille Sedar parked her car on the ground level of a parking garage at Reston Town Center, where she planned to have lunch with friends. Reston Town Center is a mixed-use development in Reston, Virginia.
Patrons who park in the garage must climb up a short flight of stairs before crossing a brick-paved landing and climbing down another short flight of stairs that leads to a sidewalk. As Sedar was crossing the landing, she tripped and fell.
Sedar has no memory of the fall. Friends who were following her did not see her trip, but they testified that her direction of travel took her over some loose bricks just before reaching the top of the stairs. Her friends took pictures and videos of the loose bricks.
Sedar landed face down on the sidewalk. She suffered a concussion, lost consciousness, fractured her elbow, and had cuts on her face and lip. An ambulance transported her to an emergency room for treatment.
After she was discharged from the hospital, Sedar examined the flat-soled shoes she had been wearing. She saw a scuff mark on the toe that was not present before she fell. She concluded that the scuff mark was caused by contact with the loose bricks.
Sedar hired a structural engineer to reconstruct the accident. The expert formed an opinion based on witness testimony, photographs of the scene, and the scuff mark on Sedar’s shoe.
The expert opined that deteriorating caulk on the landing caused bricks to become loose and unstable. He concluded that the landing was “structurally unsound and a hazard that violated applicable building and maintenance codes.” In his opinion, the hazardous condition was the most likely cause of Sedar’s fall down the stairway.
Sedar sued the property owner and the property manager. They removed the case to federal court, a forum that is often less friendly to plaintiffs than state court.
The defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued that no evidence proved that the property was in an unsafe condition. They argued in the alternative that if the property was unsafe, no evidence proved that they knew or should have known of the unsafe condition. Finally, they argued that Sedar could not prove that the allegedly unsafe condition caused her injury, given her loss of memory.
Remarkably, the district court judge granted summary judgment against Sedar. The court held that Sedar failed to prove that the property was dangerous or that the property owner or manager had notice of the unsafe condition. Notwithstanding the expert evidence, the court found that Sedar could only “speculate” about the cause of her fall.
Sedar appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sensibly reversed the district court’s defense-friendly judgment.
Dangerous Condition and Notice
The appellate court made short work of the first two issues. Whether the property was dangerous was a jury issue. Witnesses testified that the bricks were loose. Photographs showed that the loose bricks created a lip that constituted a tripping hazard. The expert engineer opined that the property condition shown in the photographs was dangerous. Since the evidence was sufficient to allow a jury to find that the condition was dangerous, the judge should not have taken that issue from the jury.
To prove that the property owner knew of the hazard, Sedar relied on a security guard’s testimony that he had “almost tripped on the stairwell a thousand times” because of “the way that it transitions from the garage to the stairs.” The appellate court held that the testimony referred to the layout of the brick landing and not to loose bricks. The court therefore agreed with the district court that there was no evidence that the property owner knew of the hazardous condition that caused Sedar’s fall.
On the other hand, the appellate court noted that Sedar’s expert testified that the deteriorating caulk joint adjacent to the loose brick would have been visible for some time. In the expert’s opinion, the condition that caused the brick to loosen did not happen overnight but resulted from a failure to maintain the property. In the expert’s view, the property owner should have spotted the hazardous condition during routine inspection and maintenance of its property.
The district court mischaracterized the expert testimony as “conclusory allegations.” In fact, the expert based his opinions on specific facts drawn from photographs of the property. He formed an opinion by applying his knowledge of property deterioration to those facts. The expert testimony would therefore allow a jury to conclude that Reston Town Center had constructive notice of the property defect. The district court erred by concluding otherwise.
Sedar was required to prove that the defective property condition caused her injury. Because she had no memory of tripping on the loose brick, and because no witness observed the reason for her fall, Reston Town Center argued that she could not prove causation.
While Sedar had no direct evidence of causation, the appellate court was satisfied that she presented circumstantial evidence. Witnesses testified that her path of travel took her across the defective portion of the landing. Photographic evidence of bloodstains were consistent with her following that path. In addition, the scuff at the tip of her shoe was consistent with her shoe getting caught in the lip created by the loose brick.
Sedar’s expert confirmed that a loose brick was the most likely cause of her fall, given the witness statements and contemporaneous photographs showing the property condition. The district court again disregarded that evidence as “conjectural.” The appellate court noted that inferences drawn from facts are not conjectural when the inferences are reasonable.
Reston Town Center argued that the circumstantial evidence was inconsistent. The appellate court recognized that juries, not judges, sift through inconsistent evidence to determine the truth. Since evidence, including expert testimony, supported the reasonable inference that Sedar tripped on a loose brick, it was up to the jury to decide whether that was the most likely reason for her fall.