In Gastel v. City of New York, 194 N.Y. 15, 86 N.E. 833, 128 Am. St. Rep. 540, 16 Am. Cas. 635, it was held that there was no liability upon the part of a municipality for injuries sustained by a pedestrian who tripped and fell upon a sidewalk by reason of a difference of approximately an inch in the elevation of its adjacent portions.Summary of this case from Smith v. Bluefield
Argued November 20, 1908
Decided January 5, 1909
Francis K. Pendleton, Corporation Counsel (James D. Bell and James W. Covert of counsel), for appellant.
Robert Stewart for respondent.
The determination of this action would be controlled beyond debate by our decision in Butler v. Village of Oxford ( 186 N.Y. 444), except for one feature which is claimed to distinguish it from that case. In the Village of Oxford case there was no evidence of prior accidents at the point where the plaintiff stumbled and fell, whereas in this case there is evidence that other people had been tripped by the alleged obstruction. It is true that some of this testimony is so extravagant as to create a strong and immediate distrust of its truthfulness and accuracy, but of course this question of veracity would be for the jury, and if the evidence is sufficient on its face to differentiate this case from the other and take it to the jury the decision of the learned Appellate Division must be affirmed. We do not think, however, that it is thus sufficient.
When an alleged defect or obstruction is of such a character that it possibly may be made the basis of an action for negligence and the question is debatable which way the decision shall go, evidence of prior accidents very well may be received and utilized for the purpose of showing that tested by actual experience it has proved dangerous and naturally calculated to cause accidents. This evidence of prior accidents cannot, however, be sufficient of itself to sustain a charge of negligence and to lay the foundation for damages because of the maintenance of some particular construction of pavements, sidewalks or buildings. There must be evidence of such a fundamental condition of the thing under scrutiny as will at least permit the inference that the party complained of has failed to discharge the duties reasonably and fairly imposed on him by law. If the full description of the alleged defect in a municipal case shows that it was of such a trivial character that it was not naturally dangerous and must almost inevitably occur in the many street miles of a city unless a grievously burdensome degree of care and expense is to be exacted, a recovery will not be allowed even though witnesses have testified to prior accidents. The familiar rule of damnum absque injuria will be applied, and travelers' mishaps will be charged to their own carelessness or to unavoidable mischance rather than to the treasury of the city. We think that such is the present case. We have had a description of the sidewalk complained of. The difference in level was small, averaging for the entire width of the walk about one inch. There was no space under the upper edge in which the foot might catch, and the walk was not broken or otherwise out of repair. We think we may take judicial notice of the fact which ordinary observation discloses that there is scarcely a rod in the streets of any city in which there may not be discovered some little unevenness or irregularity in sidewalks, crosswalks, curbs or pavements. As the result of various causes, climatic and otherwise, they are constantly occurring and recurring. Ordinarily they cause no difficulties, and it would require a vast expenditure of money to remove them all. The recent tendency of the law as evidenced by legislative enactment has been in the direction of making less rather than more stringent the rules of municipal liability in such cases, and directing our considerations to the precise facts here presented, we think that we should be disregarding those principles of liability which are justified by reason and public policy if we should permit a recovery.
The order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, plaintiff's exceptions overruled and judgment entered on the order of the Trial Term dismissing plaintiff's complaint, with costs to appellant in all the courts.
CULLEN, Ch. J., GRAY, HAIGHT, WERNER, WILLARD BARTLETT and CHASE, JJ., concur.
Order reversed, etc.