In Sanatass v. Consolidated Investing Company, the Court of Appeals recently held that the defendant, an out-of-possession landlord, was still statutorily liable for the plaintiff’s injuries despite its lack of notice or control over the work that the plaintiff was engaged in at the time of the accident. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the tenant’s breach of the lease provision that obligated the tenant to obtain the owner’s permission before hiring a contractor to perform any alterations severed any nexus between the owner and the plaintiff. Of note, the sole dissenter stated that the Court’s “decision unwisely and unnecessarily increases the already heavy burden that Labor Law § 240(1) places on New York property owners.” The dissenting Justice further noted that the Court has never addressed the situation of a landlord that did not try to delegate responsibility for worker safety to its tenant, but retained in the lease the power to provide protection for workers by requiring prior written consent before any work is done, only to have the tenant ignore the lease provision and urged the majority not to “expand our already draconian rules of Labor Law § 240 (1) liability.”
The danger of being struck by an errrant baseball or hockey puck during a game is a well recognized risk of injury to spectators. A field owner customarily satisfies its limited duty of care by providing protection in the most dangerous sections of the field or stadium. What is the duty of care during warmups before a hockey game where numerous pucks are shot and the attention of the fans may not be strictly on the ice?
In Sciarrotta v. Global Spectrum, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the “limited duty rule” applies to warmups as well as games. Thus, an owner/operator satisifies its limited duty by furnishing proper screening and protection in the most dangerous stadium areas. The Supreme Court found no meaningful distinction between injuries that are caused by objects leaving the field of play during practice or warm-ups as opposed to an actual game.
In Tarr v. Bob Ciasulli’s Mack Auto Mall, the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified two thorny issues surrounding the Punitive Damages Act. First, it held that a jury can only award punitive damages as a deterrent to the defendant who committed the wrongful acts but not as a general deterrent to others. Thus, the court held that it was error for the plaintiff’s attorney to argue that the amount of punitive damages provided the jury “an opportunity to send a message to deter this particular defendant and others” whether they are in the same industry or not. The court also criticized the jury charge that erroneously reinforced the argument that the deterence of third parties who were strangers to the lawsuit could be considered.
Second, the court found that the defendant’s wealth at the time of the wrongdoing as well as at the time of entry of judgment could be considered when the jury calculated punitive damage.
Our advice is simple: if a case proceeds to trial with a claim for punitive damages in play, defense counsel must be alert to any argument that seeks to “send a message” to an entire industry. The focus should be limited to the defendant sued in the case at hand.