Distracted New Jersey Woman Falls Into Open Sidewalk Cellar Opening

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There was a scary moment in Plainfield, New Jersey recently after a distracted 67-year-old was looking at her cellphone and walked over a barrier and fell into a sidewalk cellar for Acme Windows.  The question of liability is likely on the mind of the company even though the woman appears to have suffered non-life threatening injuries.

Workers were repairing a gas lines with the cellar doors open.  The doors are quite high as barriers and I am a bit surprised that the woman made it over the top.

Her son is quoted as saying that the woman is legally blind and diabetic.  She reportedly has particular difficulty seeing blended colors.  The son is further quoted as saying that the company should have done more like putting out cones.

The raises the issue of negligence.  Obviously putting out cones is a small burden.  Torts often tracks the “Hand Formula” of B<PL (with B as the burden to avoid the accident; P is the probability; and L is the loss). If the B is less than the PL, there is a negligence.  Yet, the probability of the accident given the high barrier of the doors seems low (though the opening has no barrier in front of the steps).  The accident us reminiscent of Fletcher v. City of Aberdeen54 Wn.2d 174, 338 P.2d 743 (1959),  where a blind man fell into a ditch dug by the city and left over night without barricades.  There were barricades earlier but they were not replaced after work was done that day.  The city insisted that it was not required to take precautions for blind citizens, but rather average pedestrians.  The Court disagreed and imposed liability.

Here, of course, the doors created a barrier.  Most blind individuals would sense the door with a cane or other device. The question is whether the victim was negligent in being legally blind but not utilizing such a device.  Then there is the use of the cellphone while walking, particularly if you are already sight impaired.  That all makes for a solid defense based on Plaintiff’s conduct for comparative negligence.

What do you think?


31 thoughts on “Distracted New Jersey Woman Falls Into Open Sidewalk Cellar Opening”

  1. If she’s blind, how is she reading her phone? And who’s to say she might not have walked right between two cones without noticing them and fallen in anyway? If I were a juror, I’d award the company it’s legal fees for having to defend itself against a frivolous lawsuit.

  2. If cones were placed in front of the door, she would have tripped over the cones. Cones in this circumstance are more in the nature of signage warning of a hazard than a barrier to the hazard itself. Unless you are going to put a string of cones completely encircling the hazard, the cones do not serve as a barrier.

  3. Women get a loud, “HEADS UP!” when walking toward me as they are hypnotized by their phone. For men, I extend my elbow. It’s basic behavior modification.

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