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Alleged negligent construction and maintenance of "landscaping" steps on steep hill by defendant homeowner - Partial paralysis/wrongful death as a result of a fall at friend's home.

Passaic County

The plaintiff contended that the defendant homeowner negligently constructed a set of "landscaping steps" that led down the steep slope from the defendant’s home. The plaintiff maintained that the defendant negligently failed to provide a handrail. The plaintiff also contended that the defendant negligently failed to properly maintain the steps, constructed from railroad ties, resulting in the development of a "lip", where some of the railroad tie steps met the crushed stone, that comprised the foot treads. There were approximately 25 steps involved. The plaintiff maintained that as the 67-year-old decedent neared the bottom; she tripped and fell, suffering a fracture to the cervical spine.

The decedent underwent surgery and was placed in a halo traction device. Over the next several months she progressed in PT to the point where she was being readied for discharge, although she still had quadriparesis. While in therapy, she suddenly collapsed. The decedent was taken to the hospital where a neurosurgeon operated on her brain and found a ruptured aneurism, which the plaintiff contended was related to the injuries sustained in the fall. She remained comatose for over a month, when she was removed from life support and died.

The evidence disclosed that the incident occurred at a Father’s Day picnic and that the decedent was a close friend of the defendant’s mother. The defendant is a municipal firefighter and also owns a small construction business. The defendant contended that he had called the municipal building department before building the steps, and had been told that no permit was necessary since the steps followed the natural contour of the land. The defense argued that since no permit was necessary, no handrail was required, since all building codes apply to only those projects that require a permit.

The defendant’s expert engineer testified that no handrail is necessary on landscaping steps. He used as examples, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, steps used by golfers at almost every golf course to get to elevated tees, and numerous other houses in the defendant’s neighborhood, all built on steep lots. The defendant also maintained that at the scene of the accident, the decedent had stated to both the defendant and the EMT’s who responded that, "my leg gave out." The jury found that the defendant was not negligent.

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