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Ahearn v. City of Providence

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 11, 2018

Frances Ahearn
v.
City of Providence, by and through its Finance Director, Lawrence J. Mancini.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 15-196) Associate Justice Richard A. Licht

          For Plaintiff: Derrin R. Almada, Esq. Benjamin A. Pushner, Esq.

          For Defendant: Noah J. Kilroy, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Maureen McKenna Goldberg, Associate Justice.

         This case came before the Supreme Court on February 7, 2018, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiff, Frances Ahearn (plaintiff or Ahearn), appeals from a final judgment granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the City of Providence (defendant or the city), on the plaintiff's amended complaint. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda submitted by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that this case should be decided without further briefing or argument. We affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         On October 28, 2013, Ahearn, who at that time was seventy-nine years old, was walking on or near Charles Street in Providence when she tripped and fell on what she described as "an oversized crack in the cement located beside the first tree." As a result of her fall, plaintiff suffered injuries. On October 31, 2013, plaintiff filed a notice of claim with the Providence City Council, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 45-15-9.[1] It is this notice of claim that brings the parties before this Court. In her notice, plaintiff stated:

"On October 28, 2013 Ms. [Ahearn] was walking on Charles Street about 100 feet from the 95 North Exit 23 off ramp. At which point Ms. [Ahearn] fell due to an oversized crack in the cement located beside the first tree. She sustained a broken right arm and a concussion. The full extents [sic] of her injuries are as of yet unknown." (Emphasis added.)

         The record discloses that, after the city received plaintiff's notice of claim, it attempted to investigate the claim and ascertain the site of plaintiff's alleged fall. The city was unable to fix the fall site, however, because the location described in plaintiff's notice of claim does not exist; specifically, a Route 95 North Exit 23 does not exit onto Charles Street.[2]

         On January 15, 2015, plaintiff filed a complaint in Superior Court alleging that she fell and sustained injuries due to the city's negligence in maintaining its sidewalk located "on or near Charles Street about 100 fee[t] from the 95 North Exit 23 off ramp, in the City of Providence * * *." (Emphasis added.) Shortly thereafter, on March 18, 2015, plaintiff moved to amend her complaint to change the location of her fall to "on or near Charles Street about 100 feet from the 95 South Exit 23 off ramp, in the City of Providence * * *." (Emphasis added.) The motion to amend was granted, and the city filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that plaintiff's notice of claim alleged that she had fallen at a location that does not exist and, therefore, the notice was defective and could not be cured because the sixty-day limitations period set forth in § 45-15-9 had expired. The plaintiff objected to the city's motion for summary judgment, and a hearing was held on October 6, 2015. The city asserted that, pursuant to § 45-15-9, plaintiff's claim should be dismissed because her notice "excludes the actual area where the accident occurred," and is therefore "inadequate as a matter of law[.]" Conversely, plaintiff argued that the city is a "sophisticated entity" and could have been on notice of the location of plaintiff's fall by simply looking at a map. The plaintiff further contended that the caselaw requires only that a plaintiff state where she fell in a reasonably sufficient manner, and that the court should consider the notice of claim as a whole. The trial justice stated that "[a] notice of claim that fails to describe with sufficient specificity of location where the incident giving rise to the claim occurred is defective as a matter of law." Although he recognized that granting summary judgment in favor of defendant was a harsh result, the trial justice concluded that identifying the wrong highway exit direction in the notice rendered plaintiff's notice inadequate, and granted defendant's motion. Plaintiff filed a timely appeal on November 12, 2015.

         On appeal, plaintiff argues that, despite the fact that her notice did not provide the exact location of her fall, it is nonetheless adequate because it describes the defect in the sidewalk in a reasonably sufficient manner. The city contends that the notice fails because it does not indicate the actual area where plaintiff's fall occurred, and that plaintiff's amended complaint could not cure the defective notice because it was filed outside the sixty-day limitations period for filing a notice of claim under § 45-15-9.

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews a trial justice's decision granting summary judgment de novo. See Sola v. Leighton, 45 A.3d 502, 506 (R.I. 2012); Lynch v. Spirit Rent-A-Car, Inc., 965 A.2d 417, 424 (R.I. 2009). "Only when a review of the admissible evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party reveals no genuine issues of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, will this Court uphold the trial justice's grant of summary judgment." National Refrigeration, Inc. v. Standen Contracting Company, Inc., 942 A.2d 968, 971 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Carlson v. Town of Smithfield, 723 A.2d 1129, 1131 (R.I. 1999)). Moreover, "[s]ummary judgment is appropriate only when the 'pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there ...


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