Law Review: Slip and fall in Annecy, France

Jim Porter
Jim Porter

My lovely wife Marianne is wearing a protective “boot” from an ankle injury she suffered while attending a family wedding in Annecy, France. Here is the story, which has a tie to the law (in case you were wondering).

Historic stairwell in France

Annecy, France is a quaint historic town on a lake in the alps not unlike Lake Tahoe. The lake is glacier fed – turquoise blue rather than cobalt or sapphire blue as Tahoe is often described.

We were leaving our hotel in the historic part of Annecy heading to the wedding venue – an old Swiss style chalet high in the Alps. As I headed down the circular staircase, I noticed there was no railing on the left side and a sketchy partial rail on the right side. As I got down to ground level there were no lights, it was dark. I said to my buddy who was behind me: “Wow, if this were in America, I’d leave a stack of business cards and cash in on all the injuries.” Yuck, yuck.

Five minutes later I was outside the stairwell on the cobblestone street waiting for Marianne and the rest of our group. I heard, “Help, I fell. I think I broke my leg.” Hmm, that sounds like Marianne. Indeed, Marianne had fallen, and learned after an ambulance ride to the nearby clinic, she’d torn her ankle ligament, which was later determined in an MRI to be several small bone fractures where the tendon pulled away from the ankle. Boot and crutches for the wedding. No lawsuit, of course, we are in France. I get that. 

Sidewalks in South America

The stairwell incident reminded me of South America where personal injury lawsuits for trip and falls on sidewalks are frowned upon – to say the least. In Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile, I saw hundreds of gaps in well-used sidewalks, some the size of a basketball and some you could fall in over your head.

I recall in downtown Santiago a two-foot by two-foot (by two-feet deep) tree well where the tree had been removed — in the middle of the sidewalk. In California, that tree well would have been marked with yellow crime-scene tape and red-flashing lights. With stacks of attorneys’ business cards sprinkled about.

California and America as a whole can certainly be described as litigious, at least compared to the rest of the world. What sometimes is overlooked is that lawsuits can drive positive safety, health and environmental changes. One letter from a lawyer in Annecy would most likely cause handrails to be installed along with a light bulb — at minimal cost. The same for a conspicuous two-foot by two-foot opening in the middle of a busy commercial sidewalk. It would be less expensive to fill in the hole than pay expensive medical bills. On the other hand, there is something to be said about watching where you walk. As they say in the Tube in London, “Mind the Gap.”

Trip and fall case du jour

All of which brings me to our case du jour (my Annecy French). 

Monica Nunez was walking on a public sidewalk in Redondo Beach when her back foot hit a raised sidewalk slab causing her to trip and fall forward. She fractured her left kneecap and right elbow. Nunez sued the city for maintaining a dangerous condition of public property and for negligence. No other complaints had been made about the slightly raised slab. The height differential was measured to be 3/4 of an inch. The trial court determined the sidewalk offset was “trivial” as a matter of law. Nunez appealed.

The law of sidewalks in California

While a public entity is liable for maintaining a dangerous condition on its property, as to sidewalks, a property defect is not a dangerous condition when “the risk created by the condition is of such a minor, trivial or insignificant nature in view of the surrounding circumstances that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury … a property owner is not liable for damages caused by a minor, trivial or insignificant defect on his property … the “trivial defect doctrine” exists for that very reason to ‘provide a check valve for elimination from the court system of unwarranted litigation which attempts to impose upon a property owner what amounts to absolute liability for injury to persons.’


The Second District Court of Appeal reviewed prior precedent of sidewalk trip and fall cases, and presumably read several Law Reviews, noting the differential of 3/4 of an inch, absent other circumstances, is generally deemed to be “trivial” – no liability for the municipality owning the sidewalk.

While different from many other countries, for better or for worse, that is the law of sidewalks in California.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. These are Jim’s personal opinions. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at or

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