City Not Responsible for Trip and Fall: Coakley v. City of Salem

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Coakley v. City of Salem, Essex Sup. Ct.

PDP successfully defended the City of Salem at trial in a case stemming from a 2013 trip and fall that occurred in one of the City’s municipal parking garages. The plaintiff, Robert Coakley, claimed that he was unable to see a four-inch step down as he exited an elevator in the garage due to poor lighting and a lack of contrast paint on the nose of the step.  Mr. Coakley testified at trial that as he exited the elevator he was looking straight ahead for his vehicle and did not expect there to be a step present.  This caused Mr. Coakley to hyperextend his leg, resulting in a rupture to the tendon in his thigh.

The evidence was uncontroverted that the City painted the nose of the tread each year with line marking paint.  It had not, however, been painted for the year 2013 at the time of the incident.  Consequently, the paint was faded.  It was also undisputed that there were two incandescent lighting fixtures directly above the step and additional natural lighting illuminating the area from the nearby open half-wall design of the garage.  Mr. Coakley could not say whether the lights were working or not, because he did not take notice.  He could only say that it was “too dark.”

The City defended on a theory that the step was open and obvious, that the area was adequately lit and that painting the lip once per year constituted reasonable care under the totality of the circumstances.  The City urged that Mr. Coakley fell because he simply was not paying attention to his surroundings.  After just 25 minutes of deliberations, the jury agreed, finding that the City was not negligent.