Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Jury’s 3 Million Damages Award for Stairwell Fall; Van Gelderen v. Hokin

A recent Appellate Court decision clarified the degree to which Illinois homeowners owe a duty to guests on their property. The court upheld a Cook County verdict that found the defendant homeowner liable for the injuries the plaintiff sustained after falling down a stairwell at the defendant’s home. Donald Van Gelderen et al. v. David Hokin, No. 1-09-3152.

The plaintiff, Donald Van Gelderen, had been installing window coverings at defendant David Hokin’s Glencoe home. After finishing the window installation, Van Gelderen went to exit the residence by way of a side stairwell, the same stairwell he had used upon entering the home. However, the second time did not pass without incident. As he opened the door to exit, Hokin fell down the basement stairs located to the right of the door.

Van Gelderen filed a premise liability lawsuit against Hokin, in which he alleged that the layout of the stairwell and the side door was unreasonably dangerous and it was this dangerous condition which was the cause of Hokin’s fall. The exterior door handle was located on the left side of the door, which then swung inward to the right. As he exited, Van Gelderen grabbed the door handle with his right hand and then stepped backwards to avoid the door’s path as it opened. However, as he did so, Van Gelderen stepped towards the basement stairwell, which was located to the right off of the outside entrance, and fell down the flight of stairs.

At the Illinois trial, Van Gelderen’s architectural expert testified that the location of the stairwell in relation to the door and the manner in which the door opened created an unreasonably dangerous condition in Hokin’s residence. The expert testified that in his opinion there was not enough room to move around the exterior side door without falling down the basement stairwell.

The jury sided with the plaintiff and his experts, entering a $3 million verdict against the homeowner. However, it later dropped that personal injury verdict down to $1.5 million for what it found to be Van Gelderen’s own negligence in his injury. However, the defense was not satisfied and entered an appeal of the jury verdict.

The defendant’s appeal was based on his conviction that he did not owe a duty of care to Van Gelderen because the exterior door’s location in relation to the basement stairwell did not constitute an unreasonable risk of harm. To support its motion, the defense cited the cases of Alcorn v. Stepzinski, 185 Ill.App.3d 1 (1989), and Glass v. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., 238 Ill.App.3d 355 (1992), in which the court held that the defendant did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff.

However, the appellate court did not find the defendant’s cases relevant to Van Gelderen. Firstly, the plaintiffs in Alcorn and Glass did not provide any expert testimony to support their claims that the defendants’ properties presented a risk of harm. Therefore, those plaintiffs were unable to support or prove their allegations of an unreasonably dangerous condition.

These cases differ from Van Gelderen, in which the plaintiff not only provided expert testimony, but was able to prove that the dangerous condition did in fact exist and was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Given this substantial difference, the court was not swayed by the defendant’s arguments based on Alcorn and Glass and continued to hold for the plaintiff.

In a last ditch effort to overturn the trial verdict, Hokin’s attorney suggested that the door and stairwell were not an unreasonably dangerous condition, but rather was an open and obvious danger. Under this theory, the plaintiff should have recognized that the stairs were a dangerous condition of the home, i.e., that its dangers were open and obvious to those who observed it. However, the appellate court rejected the relevance of this argument and upheld the lower court’s premise liability verdict against the Illinois homeowner.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury cases for more than 35 years in and around Chicago and Cook County, including Hinsdale, Elk Grove Village, Naperville, Lake Bluff, and Crystal Lake.

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