Illinois premises liability lawyers take note: Evidence of code violations, without evidence regarding “proximate cause”, is insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment. An Illinois appellate court for the First District recently held that a widow of man who died after falling down the back staircase of their apartment complex could not make a wrongful death or premises liability case against the property owners because she could not show that a defect in the stairs proximately caused the accident. Henriette Strutz v. Christopher Vicere and Christene Vicere, No. 1-07-2564 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2009).
The widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owners of their apartment complex after her husband fell from the back staircase of their two-flat apartment, and died as a result of cervical fractures from the fall. There were no witnesses to the husband’s fall, however the plaintiff testified that she found him at the bottom of the stairs and he told her that he had fallen over the railing. Also, a medical expert testified that the husband’s fall was “consistent” with a head-first fall.
The plaintiff retained an architectural expert, who testified that the defendants failed to maintain the stairs and the railing in a reasonably safe condition. Specifically, the expert opined that the staircase was unreasonably dangerous for a number of reasons, including that they were too steep and inadequately lit. Further, the expert testified that the stairs were in violation of the City of Chicago’s Building Code.
However, fatal to the plaintiff’s case was the fact that neither the expert, nor any other witness, testified that the stairs defects “proximately caused” the husband’s injury (and subsequent death). As Justice Coleman stated, “Violations of an ordinance or failure to comply with the building code, by themselves without evidence that the violations caused the injury, do not establish proximate cause.” Instead, “there has to be a link that the dangerous condition was a cause of the fall.”
This case should come as no surprise to experienced Chicago personal injury lawyers. However, it reinforces the importance of not only choosing your experts wisely, but making sure they are able to provide you with the opinions necessary to prove your case and survive a motion for summary judgment. This case also highlights the importance of solidifying “proximate cause” evidence in EVERY personal injury case in Illinois.