When defending a contractor, understanding what plaintiff’s pleadings fail to allege can allow one to prove the contractor’s entitlement for summary judgment even when affirmative evidence that negates the contractor’s duty to a non-contracting plaintiff does not exist. In Cayetano v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 2018 WL 5624037, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 07285 (2nd Dep’t October 31, 2018), the plaintiffs, employees of American Eagle Airlines, Inc., slipped and fell on ice that accumulated near Gate C5 at LaGuardia Airport. The plaintiffs commenced an action against the snow removal company, CTE Incorporated, among others. CTE moved for summary judgment, and was denied, upon which they appealed.
As CTE was a contractor who did not contract with the plaintiffs, CTE would normally not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care unless the three Espinal exceptions applied, which are (1) where the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of [its] duties, launche[s] a force or instrument of harm; (2) where the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties and (3) where the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.
The Court ruled that CTE established its prima facie entitlement to summary judgment by showing evidence that plaintiffs were not parties of the on-call snow removal agreement, and that, therefore, they did not owe them a duty of care. Importantly, the Court ruled that CTE were not required to affirmatively demonstrate that the Espinal exceptions do not apply when the plaintiffs failed to pled facts that would establish their applicability.
In opposition, plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact regarding the instrument of harm exception, as CTE only plowed three days prior to the accident, and thus, claiming that they caused the thawing and refreezing of snow would be merely speculative. Additionally, the plaintiffs failed to show that they detrimentally relied on CTE’s continued performance of their contractual duties. As such, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling the CTE’s motion for summary judgment should have been granted.
This case shows how important it is to analyze the pleadings in contractor cases as plaintiffs’ own pleadings, by not including facts that establish the Espinal exceptions applicability, may make establishing the prima facie burden for entitlement to summary judgment easier. This allows experienced counsel to move for and win summary judgment in cases where evidence may initially seem lacking.
Thanks to Jonathan Pincus for his contribution to this post.