As a puppy lawyer, I was asked to try a case on behalf of a nurse who fell while descending a staircase at the old Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights Queens. In preparing for the trial, I learned valuable information from an engineering expert about how our brain works when we are walking up or down steps. Essentially, he explained that after we take the first couple of steps, our brain will automatically learn and record the distance we need to extend our foot in order to reach the next step. Each subsequent step should be almost precisely the same distance away. If not, a tripping hazard is created when the height of one step is not uniform with the height of the others that have just been recorded by our brain.
In the case I was trying, the stairway was significantly worn out after many years of neglect by the MTA. As a result, when our nurse was descending the staircase on her way to the platform, she was caused to trip and fell down approximately 15 steps. Unfortunately, she suffered a serious trauma to her head.
The impact was so severe that it caused a tear in the bridging vessels in the subdural space of her brain which resulted in a subdural hematoma, permanent brain damage, and nearly caused her death.
The MTA refused to take responsibility and denied any liability up to the time of trial. Therefore, we were forced to try the case before the jury.
A fascinating (and frustrating) thing happened when I explained this information about how our brain works to the Judge during a pretrial conference. Upon hearing of our proposed expert’s testimony, the Judge felt that my engineer’s opinion was totally “speculative” and prevented the expert from testifying about how the human brain makes these calculations and anticipates the steps to all be a uniform distance away. While I felt the Judge was dead wrong, I had no choice but to accept his ruling. As fate would have it, justice ultimately prevailed because when the defendant’s engineering expert testified, he admitted during cross examination that everything the Judge prohibited my expert from saying was 100% true and accurate! The jury then got to hear these admissions for the first time out of the mouth of the defendant’s own expert witness. As a result, we ended up with a nice victory on behalf of the injured nurse.
I was reminded of this case after seeing a video that went viral recently about a similar defect on another subway staircase. Here’s the video that shows how a small height differential of a single step can cause people to trip. Fortunately, no one appears to have been injured during the taping of this video. However, there is one particularly scary portion where a man is carrying his baby up the steps and trips forward.
Note: the defective step in this video was a mere 1/2″ higher than the other steps. If you cannot see the video above, you can try refreshing your page or it is also available here.