Pennsylvania: Premises Liability―Defense Verdict in Philadelphia

10/18/17

Clifford Van Syoc v. Jonathan Steinhouse, et al., Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, PA, January Term, 2015, No. 2446.

Rawle & Henderson LLP obtained a defense verdict from a Philadelphia jury on October 12, 2017, in a personal injury case. Franklin C. Love, a member of the General Casualty Practice Group in the Philadelphia office, represented defendants Jonathan Steinhouse and Jacqueline Promislo.

Plaintiff Clifford Van Syoc claimed that he was injured while walking on the snow-covered brick sidewalk in front of a residential property located at 238 S. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, owned by defendants.

Defendants’ primary defense in the case was that the sidewalk did not present a dangerous condition and that defendants acted reasonably in not having their sidewalk cleared at the time of the accident. Defendants also argued that plaintiff contributed to his accident by not choosing other available paths.

Plaintiff left his home a few blocks away from the alleged site of the accident to visit an ATM located at 2nd and Pine Streets. There had been a minor snowstorm that day and the snow had temporarily stopped falling when plaintiff left his home. In total, approximately two inches of snow fell during the entire storm. The snow resumed falling a short time after the accident.

Plaintiff walked on the east side of the street to get to the ATM and arrived safely. When he finished using the ATM, he attempted to return home by walking on the west side of the street where defendants’ property was located. Plaintiff claimed that the sidewalk in front of defendants’ property was not cleared of snow.

Plaintiff testified at trial that he noticed that the sidewalk on defendants’ side of the street was not cleared while he was on his walk to the ATM. He acknowledged that he arrived at the ATM safely. He also testified that when he encountered the snow-covered portion of the sidewalk in front of defendants’ property, he considered crossing over to the other side of the street, the side he had used to safely walk to the ATM, but decided to proceed over the snow-covered sidewalk.

He further testified that his foot slipped when he took his first step onto the snow-covered portion of the sidewalk, but he continued on his walk. After another two or three steps, he slipped and fell, injuring his shoulder.

Plaintiffs attempted to advance their case at trial by impeaching defendant Jonathan Steinhouse with his deposition testimony, wherein he testified that during snowstorms he always checked the condition of his sidewalk every half hour. Defendants had no affirmative information that they had cleared their sidewalk that night.

At trial, Rawle & Henderson LLP argued that defendants were not negligent because there was a minimal amount of snow. Additionally, the Philadelphia Code requires homeowners to clear a 36-inch path within six hours of when snow ceases to fall. We argued that based on the circumstances of the snowstorm and the timing of plaintiff’s accident, defendants were not negligent for failing to have their sidewalk cleared.

After deliberating for approximately three hours, based upon the direct examinations of the defense witnesses and the cross-examination of plaintiff, the jury determined that both defendants and plaintiff were negligent, but plaintiff was 51% comparatively negligent, thus returning a defense verdict and extinguishing plaintiff’s claims.