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"…[U]nder certain circumstances failure to have proper or sufficient lighting conditions alone is sufficient to support a finding of negligence…"

Gastine v. Ewing (1944) 65 Cal. App. 2d 131

The duty of innkeepers with respect to adequate lighting is stated at 43 Corpus Juris Secundum page 1179, section 22, as follows: "there is a duty to exercise ordinary or reasonable care to keep the hallways, passageways, and stairways reasonably well lighted and free of obstructions or hazards."

In 28 American Jurisprudence page 580, section 58, in discussing the duty of an innkeeper as to stairways it is stated that "liability may also be predicated upon a failure to provide proper lights ..." Staudinger v. Whitlock (1952) 111 Cal.App.2d 288


      1.    In Hall v. Bakersfield Community Hotel Corp. (1942) 52 Cal.App.2d 158, the court affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a guest who was injured as a result of falling down stairs which led from a hall into the hotel's banquet room. The court found there was substantial evidence to establish the hotel's negligence in that there was insufficient lighting, the steps were improperly constructed and maintained, and were the same color as the floor so they could not easily be seen.

      2.    In Staudinger v. Whitlock (1952) 111 Cal.App.2d 288, the appellate court affirmed a bench trial verdict for Plaintiff injured at a guesthouse.  Plaintiff, while descending the stairway on her way from her room to the dining room, missed her footing on the second or third step from the bottom and fell to the floor of the lobby, sustaining a serious injury to her right arm.  The fall was caused due to the "failure to install and keep burning artificial light sufficient in volume to illuminate properly said stairway and to have a handrail on said stairway, and in defendant's maintaining the steps of said stairway so similar in color to the floor at the bottom thereof and adjacent thereto, as to make them indistinguishable from each other in the light available at the time…plaintiff was unable to see the last step of said stairway, missed the same and fell.  Plaintiff was familiar with the stairway and had been a guest for 18 days and had been up and down the stairway a number of times.

      3.    In Gastine v. Ewing (1944) 65 Cal. App. 2d 131, the appellate court affirmed a negligent verdict.  In this case, Paintiff, a female professional dancer and entertainer, fell into a stage elevator shaft upon the premises of a cafe and night club owned and operated by defendants. Her presence there resulted from an invitation to appear and demonstrate an act looking toward prospective employment by defendants.

    In the center of the building here involved there was a circular elevator stage which was raised and lowered by electrical machinery. The stage was not used for public dancing but only by professional entertainers who entered through a door in the basement.  The cafe was lighted by means of a large chandelier over the center of the stage and by side lights on the walls and on the balcony.

    Nothing was said to her about the character of the stage or its operation.

    Plaintiff was desirous of ascertaining whether the stage floor was slippery and if her shoes were appropriate. She testified that she was unable to see the surface of the stage from the cafe floor; she thought the stage was stationary; that the lighting in the cafe was "dim"; she walked up the steps, crossed the back bar on the ramp, to test the floor; that the floor looked like some black composition; that she walked straight forward and stepped into the elevator pit and was seriously injured. The stage had been lowered by the performer who had been rehearsing. The trial court found that the premises were "poorly lighted."

    Defendants had the right to control the operation of the stage and to see that it was at the proper level so that it would not create an open, unguarded shaft when plaintiff was to be rightfully using it in a manner to be anticipated by defendants. This fact, when considered in conjunction with the fact that there was no guard, chain or other obstacle of any kind placed across the steps or ramp leading to the stage, the poor lighting condition found by the court to exist, and the failure of defendants to warn plaintiff of such condition, which condition was known by them to exist, would, if true, support a finding of negligence on the part of defendants.

      4.    In Johnston v. De La Guerra Properties, Inc. (1946) 28 Cal. 2d 394, sufficient evidence supported a finding that the defendant owner was negligent. The owner encouraged patrons of its tenants to park their cars on the adjoining property and approach the building by way of the private walk. The owner had knowledge of the condition which caused the accident, and a jury could find that defendant owner should have foreseen that patrons parking at night, and unaided by any lighting, might fail to discover the ramp, and, in attempting to gain entrance to the building, step onto the walk at a dangerous place. Under these circumstances, it cannot be said as a matter of law that defendant owner was not negligent in failing to light the premises, or provide guard rails, or otherwise to protect or warn business invitees against the danger inherent in this particular approach.

     5.    In Markewych v. Altshules (1967) 255 Cal. App. 2d 642, plaintiff alleges that at about 9 p.m., she was a business invitee and licensee upon the apartment house premises of defendants.  Further, that defendants caused the steps and passageway of the premises to become unsafe to persons using the same and as a result, plaintiff, fell thereon and injured herself.  The defendants denied any negligence and affirmatively asserted that plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence. In a jury trial the jury returned a unanimous verdict for plaintiff in the sum of $7,240.

    Plaintiff she tripped over a single step or rise while crossing a courtyard or patio of the premises. The cement rise or step was of the same material as the lower and upper portion of the courtyard. There were no markings or painting on the side or top of the step or rise to show that the area was not a continuous level courtyard. There was no direct lighting to give notice of the location of the step or rise. Even when all of the lights were on, including the lighting of the individual apartments, the rise or step was quite indistinguishable and barely visible such as a shadow would be.

    Plaintiff had been on the premises previously; however she had never been by or over the step or rise in question at night before the accident occurred.

    The record in this case supports the verdict and judgment. There was no lighting of the step or rise, or the walkway itself; there were no markings or painting on the side or top of the step and even when the lights were on full, the step or rise was vague and visible as a shadow only. The evidence was that it was dark and that plaintiff tripped and fell when she collided with the rise or step which was of the same coloring as the lower and upper courtyard surface.
      6.     In Block v. Snyder (1951) 105 Cal. App. 2d 783, the appellate court held that jury instructions, though erroneous, were not prejudicial to the outcome of a defense verdict.

    Plaintiffs alleged that the building was negligently constructed and maintained by the defendants in that the stairway here involved appeared to plaintiff to open into the lobby, but actually it opened directly into a steep and unlighted stairway; that she mistakenly entered this doorway believing it opened into the lobby and she fell down the stairway, fracturing her spine and receiving other serious injuries. Defendants answered, denied negligence, and set up the affirmative defenses of unavoidable accident and contributory negligence. On the issues thus framed the case was tried by a jury and resulted in a judgment for defendants.

    About 1:30 p.m. on the day in question plaintiff, according to her testimony, proceeded northerly on the sidewalk for the purpose of entering the Broadway Building in one of the offices upstairs. Instead of entering at the main lobby entrance, she decided she would take a "short cut" through this other entrance and save time due to the inclement weather. She testified that she pulled at the stationary door and found it would not open; that she then unlatched the other door, pulled it toward her, stepped into the passageway, which proved to be a stairway, and that she fell; that she had on dark glasses; that the hallway appeared to be dark and unlighted but she believed she was entering a passageway into the main lobby of the building.   She testified that she was positive she did not slip on anything.

    The main question involved on this appeal is whether the court erred in refusing to give an instruction offered by plaintiffs reading: "You are instructed that the San Diego City Building Ordinance effective at the time of this accident provided that: 'doors shall not open immediately upon a flight of stairs but on a landing at least equal to the width of the door.' If you find from the evidence that the defendants, or any of them, conducted themselves in violation of said Ordinance just read, you are instructed that said conduct constituted negligence as a matter of law."

    Section 3304 does provide that "Doors shall not open immediately on a flight of stairs but on a landing at least equal to the width of the door."

    This entire instruction, when considered in connection with the other instructions given on the question of the liability of the owner and the lessee to a licensee and to an invitee [were not] prejudicially erroneous.

    7.    In Medcraft v. Merchants Exchange , (1931) 211 Cal. 404 , plaintiff, seeking a washroom, ignored a lighted room which was the one he sought, opened another door, stepped through it into darkness, and dropped down an air shaft; in granting a nonsuit the court held plaintiff to have been a mere licensee when he undertook to enter the darkened space.

    8.    In Beeston v. Lampasona (1960) 182 Cal. App. 2d 519, the trial judge found that defendant owned an apartment building. Harriet Lawrence was a tenant in one of the second-floor apartments. In connection with the building there was a common stairs and a common entrance which was under the control of defendant. About 7:30 p. m. on April 24, 1958, plaintiff, as an invitee of Harriet Lawrence, went to the latter's apartment. About 9:30 p. m. plaintiff commenced to leave the premises. At that time and place, defendant maintained the entrance and the stairs at the entrance to the building in a negligent, dangerous, and defective condition and, in particular, he did not have proper lighting in and about the entrance and stairs. As a proximate result of such maintenance of the entrance and stairs, plaintiff, in leaving the premises, slipped, fell, and suffered injuries.  Harriett testified that the light above the entrance was "off." It was dark in the area; it was not illuminated "by any lights from any place."  The fact that the steps were not defective or unsafe in and of themselves is a false quantity. The negligence alleged and found was the failure to provide lighting. A reasonable inference from the evidence is that the absence of lighting was the proximate cause of the fall.


Note: California now uses proportionate fault in Comparative Negligence cases.

1.  Contributory Negligence? No.

      a.    In DeGraf v. Anglo California Nat. Bank (1939) 14 Cal.2d 87, 98, the plaintiff fell into a dimly lighted freight elevator shaft, believing the elevator would not operate with the doors open, and therefore, that the cab was at the landing (but it was not). The opening was "very dark." (P. 92.) The court held, affirming a judgment for plaintiff, that there was no contributory negligence as a matter of law.

    b.    In Gastine v. Ewing (1944) 65 Cal. App. 2d 131, the appellate court affirmed a trial court holding that a professional dancer, visiting the premises [presumably for the first time], fell down an elevator shaft due to lack of safety, warning, and lack of adequate lighting, and there was no contributory negligence.
      c.    In Chiappe v. Eichenbaum, 169 Cal.App.2d 46 , a building maintenance man opened a door in a building, stepped in, and fell to the bottom of a shaft. He had stepped from the lobby floor, which was dark, into what he thought was the elevator, to turn on the elevator light, and fell into the basement, the car not being on the floor. There the plaintiff, [familiar with the premises] who had been taking care of the building for about a month, testified that he "'was positive the elevator is right there or the door don't open.'" (P. 49.) The reviewing court held that the plaintiff was not contributorily negligent as a matter of law because, according to the plaintiff, …the appearances were consistent with safety and with what plaintiff had been led by prior experience and his knowledge of the premises to expect." (P. 52.)

      d.     Russo v. Burch (1964) 224 Cal. App. 2d 403: In December 1958, Plaintiff visited the dwelling of Mrs. Norma DiTano, a voice coach, arriving at 5:30 p.m. for the purpose of securing certain musical instruction. The means of ingress and egress required use of a particular set of stairs, i.e., only one route.  [Familiar]  Plaintiff had visited this dwelling many time before, but, on the day in question, upon the termination of the voice session at about 7 p.m., plaintiff and Mrs. DiTano prepared to leave the flat together. Plaintiff opened the door leading to the landing and observed that the lights were out and that it was "pitch black." She made her way forward along the landing, tried to grasp the shingles on the wall of the building, and then plunged forward, falling down all six steps to the patio.  She did not "trip over anything," that she did not "slip on anything," but that she "stepped forward" and "couldn't find the step, and fell forward." At the time of her fall plaintiff held her purse and a briefcase containing her sheet music in her left hand. The heels on her shoes were "Cuban heels" which are 1 1/2 inches high and 1 1/2 inches wide at the bottom.

    Mrs. DiTano testified that between the time defendant took over possession of the premises at the end of 1956 and plaintiff's accident, the light over the landing was never on, and that her students had to use flashlights, matches and other means of illumination.

    The court held that Plaintiff was not negligent as a matter of law, and remanded the case back to trial to change the jury instructions.

    Although the circumstance of "impenetrable darkness" is present, plaintiff having testified that it was "pitch black," we do not have the element of "unfamiliarity with the premises."  Although it was "pitch black" due to this circumstance the appearances to plaintiff, because of her familiarity with the staircase, were consistent with safety and with what she had been led by prior experience to expect.

      e.    In Hayes v. Richfield Oil Corp., 38 Cal.2d 375. This case was not cited in Robinson, nor in Cheyney, Wolfe, or Mitchell. In Hayes, the plaintiffs, who were husband and wife, were invitees on certain service station premises. They were walking across said premises at 2:30 a.m. All the service station lights had been turned off excepting two lights in the station premises. A street lamp also partially illuminated the service station area, but the illumination was such that objects could only be vaguely distinguised. The husband walked ahead of his wife, and in the darkness she fell into a grease pit. The wife was not aware of the pit. 

    The Calfiornia Supreme Court held that the question of contributory negligence was one of fact for the jury and that neither plaintiff was negligent as a matter of law. The court reasoned that a jury could have concluded that the wife was not aware of the hazard and that she did not act unreasonably in assuming that there was nothing of a dangerous character on the premises.

      f.    In McLaughlin v. City of Los Angeles, 60 Cal.App.2d 241, the plaintiff fell on a street which he knew was defective. The accident occurred at 8:30 p.m.; there were no street lights in the vicinity and it was dark. The plaintiff knew that there was a strip of ground next to a fence on which he had been able to walk safely under similar conditions, but on the night of the accident a parked automobile prevented him from using this safe path, so he attempted to walk around the left of the automobile on what appeared to him to be a path wide enough to pass between the automobile and a hole on its left. His foot slipped on the edge of this hole and he fell, sustaining injuries. It was held that he was not negligent as a matter of law.

      g.    In Stewart v. Lido Café (1936), 13 Cal.App.2d 46 , a patron of the cafe, thinking that he was opening the door to a restroom, mistakenly opened a door upon a stairway and fell to his death.  The jury found for Plaintiff and the appellate court affirmed the verdict.


2. Contributory Negligence?  Maybe

      a.    Laidlaw v. Perozzi (1955) 130 Cal. App. 2d 169 -  In this case defendant unlocked a previously locked door to an admittedly dangerous doorway after plaintiff was already on the premises and while she was engaged in performing a portion of her contemplated functions for the common benefit of both parties. This act of unlocking the stairway defendant door did constitute the kitchen a more hazardous room to one who, though not thoroughly familiar with it, was sufficiently familiar to know that, of the three doors leading out of it, one led to the dining room and the other to a hallway leading to the front door. It cannot then be said positively and without possibility of reasonable contradiction that plaintiff was unquestionably negligent if through mistake or inadvertence she opened the stairway door immediately alongside the hallway door, and in her haste and, thinking it was the door to the hallway and relying upon her previous familiarity with the safe condition of the hallway, presumed to hurry through it without the kind of inspection which would reasonably be required where one was knowingly entering upon unfamiliar territory. Certainly it is a question upon which reasonable minds might differ and if so it becomes a question of fact for the jury and not one of those instances where the court could say, without possibility of reasonable contradiction, that appellant's conduct constituted negligence as a matter of law.   

    The absence of stronger illumination and of an attendant may have suggested to plaintiff that no dangers were present which would reasonably require disclosure, and have led her to believe that she was safe in proceeding into the room. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, as required when considering a motion for a nonsuit (Archer v. City of Los Angeles, (1941) 19 Cal. 2d 19, 23);

3.    Contributory Negligence? Yes.

      a.    In Robinson v. King, 113 Cal.App.2d 455, 457, an invitee, unfamiliar with the premises, reached inside a doorway to find a light switch. Finding none, he stepped through and fell down a flight of stairs. The appeal court affirmed that he was an invitee on premises, but being unfamiliar therewith, proceeded into a place of impenetrable darkness and fell into an aperture, as a matter of law did not exercise ordinary care for his own safety.

"The evidence however, discloses that the plaintiff, with full knowledge of the fact that the lighting was inadequate even in the loading room, proceeded directly through this opening, with realization of the fact that it was so dark that he could not see the floor inside of the opening, could not see whether or not there were any lights, could not see at all as to what was beyond the opening. He felt for the light switches, and not finding them, chose to step into and through the opening in the darkness, without lighting a match or having any aid by way of light in any manner whatsoever."

See related article: Robinson Unfamiliarity and Darkness Rule

      b.    In Cheyney v. City of Los Angeles, 119 Cal.App.2d 75, 78, plaintiff walked down steps leading from a parking lot to a beach and fell 29 inches from the last step to the sand. She was aware that the waves and tides were eroding beaches in Southern California at that time. The court affirmed a nonsuit, invoking the rule that an invitee unfamiliar with the premises is contributorily negligent in proceeding into a place of impenetrable darkness.

      c.    In Wolfe v. Green Mears Construction Co., 134 Cal.App.2d 654, 658 [286 P.2d 433], the plaintiff walked in impenetrable darkness in unfamiliar desert territory for a distance of approximately 141 feet and then fell into a ditch.

      d.    In Mitchell v. A. J. Bayer Co. (1954) 126 Cal.App.2d 501, 504 [272 P.2d 870], the plaintiff construction worker walked through a hole which was pitch dark, being unable to see anything inside the pitch dark hole, and not knowing what was inside, he proceeded (without using a flashlight or other artificial light) and fell down a stairway.  Plaintiff contended the hall and stairway should have been lighted. All areas were lighted for workmen as they had occasion to use them. There was, as we say, no reason to anticipate that on the Sunday in question, the men working on the windows on other floors would have reason to use the hall and stairway.  The appellate court held that plaintiff was shown to have been guilty of negligence as a matter of law. He stepped into an area with which he was unfamiliar; it was "pitch dark" and he took no precautions for his safety.

    e.    In Bruce v. Risley (1934) 15 Cal. App. 2d 659, the appellate court found that appellant was himself guilty of negligence, in that, by proceeding through the doorway, bearing in mind his unfamiliarity with the premises, with no more aid to his vision than was furnished by the light of the small matches which he utilized and his failure to make any effort to observe the floor on which he was walking indicate that appellant did not perform the duty imposed upon him. It is evident that he appreciated the possibility of danger in proceeding into the darkness without any light for he stopped his companion from proceeding through the doorway and lighted the matches. It is obvious, however, that the very slight illumination thus afforded gave entirely insufficient aid to the vision of a person who was cognizant of the possibility of danger. His continued advance without making any effort to see what lay on the floor beyond him shows that he took no greater care for his own safety than he would have taken if he had walked through the doorway and onto the stair landing without having lighted any matches. The impenetrable darkness which surrounded the stair landing was in itself a sufficient warning to appellant who had never before visited the premises that if he proceeded through the doorway without sufficient illumination to enable him to see what lay beyond he would do so at his own risk… it is evident that appellant fully appreciated the force of this warning. There was no …emergency or stress of circumstances which rendered it necessary or even desirable that he should proceed without making any greater effort than he did to discover where he was going and what obstructions might exist to render his further progress unsafe…

      f.    Powers v. Raymond (1925) 197 Cal. 126: The defendant is the owner and proprietor of the Raymond Hotel in Pasadena. Plaintiff had been engaged by the defendant to manage the hair-dressing department during the forthcoming season.  The plaintiff left the hotel about 11 o'clock on the night of the 22d for the purpose of meeting the incoming train. The main roadway through the hotel grounds toward the station was easily and safely traversable and had been well lighted for the particular accommodation of those who were to arrive on said train. The parallel pathway was unlighted and it was impossible for anyone passing along the same in the darkness at that time of night to discern whether or not it was passable. This condition attending the pathway was observed by the plaintiff at the time. The lighted roadway was also plainly observable. The pathway was unlighted because it was not then in use, was under repair and was not to be used until the regular season opened. Instead of following the main well-lighted roadway, the plaintiff entered the dark pathway. She testified that in proceeding along the same she "couldn't see at all because it was so dark." After the plaintiff had proceeded a short distance along the dark pathway her "foot went into a big hole," which may be assumed to have been a defective portion of the boardwalk. She fell and suffered a severe injury to her knee.

    Much stress is laid by the plaintiff on the claim that it was the duty of the defendant to place some sign or obstruction at the entrance of the dark by-path to warn those who might choose to enter, but we think the impenetrable darkness was in itself a sufficient warning, even to those who had used the path before, not to use the same except at their own risk.

    …the plaintiff was unfamiliar with the pathway, had never used it before and in fact did not know that it existed. Under such circumstances, if it be assumed that negligence on the part of the defendant was shown, the conclusion would be impelled that the plaintiff was at the time guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law…


 Author: Attorney Matthew B. Tozer
Copyright 2012

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