Court Dismisses Personal Injury Suit, Holding That Sidewalk Trapdoor Stairs Were Not “Interior Stairs” Under the NYC Building Code and Therefore Could Lawfully Include Conveyor Belt

Addressing an issue of first impression, the New York Supreme Court (Bronx County) in Bautista v. 85th Columbus Corporation recently held that a sidewalk basement stairway, accessed through trap doors set into the sidewalk, is not an “interior stair” within the meaning of New York City Administrative Code § 27-375.

Plaintiff was injured after slipping and falling on a stairway leading from the sidewalk doors to the cellar of the premises located at 524 Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. The steps on which plaintiff fell were outfitted with a conveyor belt for moving objects from street level to the premises’ basement.  Due to the conveyor belt, only about 14 inches remained available for passage. Plaintiff testified that

he activated the machine by ascending halfway up the staircase [and] when he turned around on the narrow step to begin his descent, due to the narrowness of the stairway, the absence of a handrail, and the alleged slippery condition of the stair tread, he fell forward, and his hand became entangled in the machine.

Initially, the court “agree[d] with the defendants that an out-of-possession owner is not generally liable for accidents which occur solely due to the manner in which the premises are arranged, absent any structural defect.” However:

[I]f the stairway in question was a required exit, a permanent obstruction of the exit would constitute a statutory violation. It could hardly comport with the law that a required means of egress could be blocked off without violating the Building Code. … Accordingly, permitting the tenant to install a conveyor belt, thus obstructing passage, and the lack of handrails, if required under the code, would constitute statutory violations for which the out-of-possession owner could be liable.

Administrative Code § 27-375 states that “interior stairs” must comply with certain requirements (such as having a handrail on one side), and § 27-232 defines an “interior stair” as “[a] stair within a building, that serves as a required exit.” Therefore, the “determinative issue” was “whether the stairway in question was a required exit under the 1968 Administrative Code.”

The court answered this question in the negative, reasoning:

It would not be logical to think that stairways leading from basements to locked doors in the sidewalk would serve as required exists from buildings. Nor did the plaintiff establish that the basement or cellar, used for commercial storage, required an exit to the outside for safety reasons. The requirements of the code, as to enclosures, handrails, and other particulars do not logically apply to the type of stairs at issue, which are used only for access for storage. This Court holds that the stairway at issue is not an “interior stair” within the meaning of the 1968 Administrative Code.

Therefore, “[b]ecause the stairway at issue was not a required exit, the stair could be converted — as it was essentially — from a staircase to a conveyor belt”, and “the rearrangement of the premises did not create a structural defect.”

Share This: