DOES THE SLIGHT-DEFECT RULE APPLY TO PARKING LOTS?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Elstun v. Spangles, Inc., 289 Kan. 754, 217 P.3d 450 (2009).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does the slight-defect rule apply to parking lots?
Under Kansas law, the slight-defect rule prevents liability from attaching when the defect that causes a plaintiff’s fall is only a “slight defect or obstruction” on a sidewalk. Id. at 757. This rule was originally applied only to cities, responsible for miles and miles of sidewalks. Id. However, over time, the rule expanded to include private sidewalks maintained by businesses. Id. at 758. In this case, the court was asked if a “slight defect or obstruction” in a parking lot also was included in this rule. Id. at 759. The court ultimately concluded that the rule applied only to sidewalks, not parking lots. Id. at 760.
Plaintiff had just finished eating at Defendant’s restaurant and was walking through the parking lot to her vehicle. Id. at 755. As she was about to reach her vehicle, Plaintiff stepped in a sunken area of the parking lot and fell backwards. Id. The fall caused Plaintiff’s hip to break. Id. The parking lot was maintained by Defendant, and was largely well maintained, save for the two-inch depression that caused Plaintiff’s fall. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment for the Defendant, finding that the slight-defect rule applied and barred Plaintiff’s claim. Id. Plaintiff appealed. Id.
The court began by tracing the history of the slight-defect rule. Id. at 757. The rule developed in 1935, largely as a means to prevent cities from being assigned an impossible task. Id. Cities are responsible for miles and miles of sidewalks, and it would be virtually impossible to ensure that every slight defect was immediately fixed and all debris was immediately removed. Id. at 758. Summed up, a city “is not required to furnish perfect walks, its only duty in this respect is to furnish walks that are reasonably safe for use.” Id. This logical rule was then slowly expanded to include private sidewalks of residencies and business. Id.
However, the court decide that is where the expansion ended. Id. at 759. First, parking lots and sidewalks are two very different areas. Id. Sidewalks may be used by individuals just passing by a business as well as customers coming to the business. Id. Parking lots, on the other hand, are almost always reserved solely for customers. Id. Further, parking lots are known to require more routine maintenance than sidewalks, sidewalks potentially lasting for years without major issues. Id. Parking lots, on the other hand, are made of asphalt that will often give under the weight of large vehicles. Id. Further, repaving and patching parking lots is a routine part of their maintenance; they are not known to last years and years without attention. Id.
Considering all these factors, the court decided that “the slight-defect rule is a narrow, judicially created exception” and would remain narrow. Id. at 760. The court found that expanding the rule to parking lots would be stretching the rule beyond its reasoning. Id. Thus, the slight-defect rule applies only to slight defects in sidewalks, not in other areas of a property. Id.