D’Alessandro v. Hartzel concerned a Plaintiff who rented Defendants’ Jersey Shore condominium for a one-week vacation. Plaintiff had viewed pictures of the interior of the rented unit online prior to her arrival, but had never actually visited the property until the start of her vacation. Arriving for the first time, Plaintiff crossed the threshold of the front door sideways while dragging her luggage. As she was doing so, Plaintiff fell on a step leading from the entry landing to a sunken living room. She sustained injuries as a result.
Plaintiff brought a suit premised on negligence. She alleged that the unevenness of the floors in such close proximity to the door constituted a design defect. She also alleged a failure to warn as to this condition. Discovery was completed without Plaintiff offering any expert proof. At the close of discovery, Defendants moved for Summary Judgment.
The Trial Court granted Defendant’s motion stating that Plaintiff had not satisfied her burden of presenting proof for the jury to consider on the issues of defective design or construction. Further, the Judge believed that the undisputed actions of Plaintiff were overwhelmingly negligent, such that a reasonable jury would not be able to find for Plaintiff absent proof of a design defect or negligent construction.
Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court had improperly required expert testimony. The Appellate Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument finding that Plaintiff had not offered any proof that the complained of condition, by itself, was dangerous or involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm to visitors. As an example, the Court stated that Plaintiff could have made a showing that the layout of the entranceway violated standards set forth in state statues or in local construction codes. However, the Court cautioned, citing N.J. Mortg. & Inv. Corp. v. Calvetti, 68 N.J. Super. 18, 25 (App. Div. 1961), that if such a showing consisted of, “mere allegations of a design flaw or construction defect, without some form of evidentiary support¼” a meritorious motion for summary judgment would still find success. Elaborating, the Court continued that expert testimony of the deficiencies is required because of the “esoteric or specialized” nature of the matter being considered.
The Appellate Court also found that liability was precluded because Plaintiff knew or had reason to know of the risk involved with the potentially dangerous condition. The Court was convinced that Plaintiff had, or should have had, prior knowledge of the entranceway layout because she had viewed photos of the space prior to her arrival. Additionally, the Court noted that there was nothing inconspicuous about the change in elevation. Rather, the facts showed that there was adequate light, the patterns of two floor levels were clearly distinguishable, and there were no obstructions to Plaintiff’s view.
by Daniel C. Seger, Esq.