Injury Suit Involving Trapdoor Stairway Dismissed

, New York Law Journal

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A sidewalk trapdoor.
Stairs leading to basements from sidewalks are common in the city.

Stairs leading from sidewalk trapdoors to basements, common throughout New York City, are not "interior stairs" under the city's building code, a Bronx state judge has ruled, dismissing a lawsuit against an Upper West Side landlord by a man whose hand was caught in a conveyor belt that obstructed a deli's trapdoor stairway.

Supreme Court Justice Sharon Aarons (See Profile) held in her Nov. 26 order in Bautista v. 85th Columbus Corp., 302391/10, that the stairs were not a necessary exit from the building, making it legal to obstruct them with a conveyor belt in order to unload merchandise.

The plaintiff, Nicholas Bautista, sued the owner of a building on Columbus Avenue over an injury he suffered in October 2008.

Bautista was doing work that required him to go into the basement of the building, accessible through a sidewalk trapdoor. The tenant that leased the first floor and basement, a deli, had installed a conveyor belt that took up much of the stairs, leaving a space only 14 inches wide for walking. The deli is not a party to the suit. Bautista alleges that he slipped and fell on the stairs, and his hand was caught in the conveyor belt machinery.

Bautista claimed that the owner of the building was liable for a slippery condition on the stairs, and for the obstruction of the stairs by the conveyor belt. New York's building code requires that interior stairs not be obstructed.

The landlord moved to dismiss. It said that Bautista had not provided enough evidence to support his claims, and that, moreover, the trapdoor stairs were not "interior stairs" under the building code. In fact, the deli has a separate interior stairway between the first floor and the basement.

Aarons began her analysis by noting that, under the building code, an interior stair is a "stair within a building, that serves as a required exit."

Interior stairs are different from "access stairs," which are "between two floors in a building that do not serve as a required exit," and from "exterior stairs," which are "open to the outdoor air that do serve as a required exit."

Trapdoor stairs do not fit clearly into any category, Aarons said, and no court has explicitly decided what they are.

In a recent decision, Lopez v. Chan, 102 A.D.3d 625, 959 N.Y.S.2d 67, the Appellate Division, First Department dismissed a personal injury claim over an accident on trapdoor stairs. In that case, however, the basement was not directly accessible from the building above, and the plaintiff argued that the stairs were exterior stairs, rather than interior stairs. The First Department concluded that, because the basement was not connected to the building, the basement was not a "building" at all, and the stairs were not a necessary exit under the building code.

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