PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) – The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently upheld a summary judgment in a premises liability case in which a woman claimed she was injured when she fell through faulty stairs.

On May 24, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed a Providence County Superior Court ruling of a premises liability summary judgment in favor of defendant Paul Kelly. Pocahontas Cooley appealed the ruling, claiming she was injured after falling through a defective stair.

The opinion was written by Associate Justice Francis X. Flaherty. The court concluded that there was no evidence that defendant had any notice of any defective condition and that there was no basis for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

According to court documents, Kelly and Cooley both lived at a property in Exeter. Kelly owned the property, and Cooley had lived there since 1998. On June 10, 2004, Cooley was talking on her cellphone when she climbed the wooden stairs that led to the front porch of the mobile home.

She testified that when she reached the top stair, she “began to fall through it and [her] feet hit the ground and [she] was encased in the stairwell,” according to the opinion.

Cooley stated she sustained multiple injuries from the fall and then filed a complaint against Kelly in May 2007, claiming he was negligent in that he had breached his duty to keep the premises in a safe and reasonable manner. 

"She claimed that the stairs had rotted from insect damage and that, as a result, they were dangerous and not properly maintained," according to the opinion.

When she was deposed, Cooley confirmed that she walked on the step multiple times without any problems prior to the incident.

After discovery had been completed in November 2010, Kelly filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging the premises did not exist for a sufficiently long period of time, so he should be afforded reasonable notice. Cooley retained new counsel and filed a motion to amend her complaint to include a res ipsa loquitur allegation against defendant.

In November 2012, the Superior Court granted the motion in favor of Kelly, noting that Cooley failed to produce sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that it was more likely than not that there was negligence on the part of defendant.

After reviewing the case, the Supreme Court ruled that Cooley has not offered any similar evidence to substantiate her claims.

“Therefore, we agree with the hearing justice and hold that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur cannot properly be applied to the facts of this case. After reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, it is our opinion that no genuine issues of material fact exist,” according to the opinion.

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