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Sweeten v. Layson's Home Improvement's

December 12, 2006

JEREMY SWEETEN AND CHRISTINE SWEETEN, PLAINTIFFS
v.
LAYSON'S HOME IMPROVEMENT'S, INC., DEFENDANT
v.
ANN LEFEVRE, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT
v.
GERALD SWEETEN, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court are the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 33), filed by defendant Layson's Home Improvements, Inc. ("Layson's"), and the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 35), filed by third-party defendant Ann LeFevre ("LeFevre"). For the reasons that follow, Layson's motion for summary judgment will be denied, and LeFevre's motion for summary judgment will be denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

On December 31, 2002, plaintiff Jeremy Sweeten ("Jeremy") was moving furniture into the home of his aunt, LeFevre. (Doc. 44 ¶ 1; Doc. 53 ¶ 1.) Jeremy and his father, third-party defendant Gerald Sweeten ("Gerald"), were carrying a bookcase down a newly-renovated stairway into LeFevre's basement when Jeremy lost his footing. (Doc. 44 ¶ 2; Doc. 53 ¶ 2.) At the time of the accident, Jeremy was negotiating the stairway backwards. (Doc. 44 ¶ 2; Doc. 53 ¶ 2.) Jeremy fell down the stairway, and the bookcase fell on top of him. (Doc. 44 ¶ 3; Doc. 53 ¶ 3.) Jeremy suffered a broken arm and a forehead laceration as a result of the fall. (Doc. 44 ¶ 4; Doc. 53 ¶ 4; Doc. 1 ¶ 13.)

LeFevre's home renovations were completed by Layson's. As a component of the renovations, Layson's replaced the stair treads on LeFevre's basement stairway. (Doc. 44 ¶ 6; Doc. 53 ¶ 6.) Less than one month after the accident, Commonwealth Code Inspection Service, Inc. ("CCIS") issued a final inspection report concerning the renovations conducted by Layson's. (Doc. 42, Ex. C.) The CCIS report notes several defects in the stairway's construction, including problems with the stair treads and the handrail. (Doc. 42, Ex. C.) In June 2005, a second inspection of LeFevre's stairway was conducted by a civil consulting engineer whom Jeremy had hired. (Doc. 42, Ex. B at 1.) The engineer's expert report also reveals several problems with the stair treads and the handrail. (Doc. 42, Ex. B at 2.)

On December 21, 2004, Jeremy commenced the instant action, alleging that his accident was caused by "a faulty stair tread" that Layson's had not properly installed or inspected. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 8, 11.) On August 9, 2005, Layson's filed a third-party complaint against LeFevre. Layson's alleges that, should Jeremy prevail on his claim against it, LeFevre should also be held liable because she knew the condition of the stairway but failed to warn Jeremy of that condition. (Doc. 11 ¶¶ 6-7.) On September 6, 2005, LeFevre filed a third-party complaint against Gerald, alleging that his "negligent handling" of the bookcase contributed to the accident. (Doc. 21 ¶ 7.)

Defendants Layson's and LeFevre filed separate motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 33, 35.) Both defendants argue that Jeremy cannot present any evidence to suggest that a defect in the stairway caused his fall. (Doc. 33 ¶ 14; Doc. 35 ¶ 12.) LeFevre further argues that no evidence of record suggests that she had knowledge of any defect in the stairway prior to Jeremy's fall. (Doc. 35 ¶ 26.) The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.*fn2

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion*fn3

Defendants Layson's and LeFevre move for summary judgment on Jeremy's negligence claim on the ground that Jeremy has failed to present evidence that a defect in the stairway caused his fall. To survive a motion for summary judgment in a negligence case, the plaintiff need only produce evidence from which "a reasonable jury could find breach of a duty of care and actual damages sustained as a proximate cause of the breach."*fn4 Player v. Motiva Enters., No. Civ. 02-3216, 2006 WL 166452, at *8 (D.N.J. Jan. 20, 2006). Here, defendants' motions address only Jeremy's ability to prove causation, so the remaining elements will not be discussed.

In moving for summary judgment, defendants rely heavily on the fact that none of the three witnesses to the accident testified with certainty that a defect in the stairway caused the accident. (Doc. 34 at 4-5; Doc. 37 at 3-5.) However, even absent such testimony, Jeremy presents sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that a defect in the stairway caused his fall. First, Jeremy offers two inspection reports that reveal numerous defects in the stairway. (See Doc. 42, Exs. B, C.) Second, Jeremy points to LeFevre's deposition in which she concedes that one of the steps on the stairway appeared loose after the accident. (Doc. 42, Ex. D at 42-43.) Finally, Jeremy suggests that the Layson's employee who renovated the stairway was sixteen years of age and untrained. (Doc. 43 at 5.)

Given the clear factual dispute as to causation, summary judgment is inappropriate and Layson's motion (Doc. 33) for summary judgment will be denied. To the extent that LeFevre's motion (Doc. 35) for summary judgment repeats the arguments made by Layson's, it will likewise be denied. With respect to LeFevre's remaining argument that she lacked ...


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