Art Law & Litigation Conference

Dennis Wade, a member of the planning committee for the Federal Bar Association Art Law & Litigation Conference, served as a moderator at a day long CLE program on February 7, 2019 at the National Arts Club.  The program addressed cutting edge topics across the spectrum of art law, litigation and copyright issues in the digital age. For more information on the program’s substance, please call or email Dennis at dwade@wcmlaw.com.

Conflicting Testimony in Case Involving an Infant Warrants Denial of Summary Judgment (NY)

An infant plaintiff was injured when she fell from a chairlift at Catamount Ski Area in Hillsdale, New York. Unsurprisingly, there was conflicting testimony regarding how the accident occurred.

Many of the relevant facts are not in dispute. The infant plaintiff was four-years-old at the time of her accident. Plaintiff began taking weekly lessons with the Catamount Mountain Cats program in January 2013 and was being instructed by Sean Suydam. At that point, Suydam had been working as an instructor at Catamount for approximately four years. Suydam described the infant plaintiff as an above-average skier. Before the accident, the infant plaintiff had made two or three runs down the bunny hill before proceeding to a quad chairlift (the “lift”), which she ultimately fell from.

In Laura V v. Catamount Development Corporation, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed a lower court decision by deeming conflicting testimony as to how an accident occurred sufficient to preclude granting Catamount’s motion for summary judgment and finding that defendants failed to prove that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in this case.

When she got on the lift, the infant plaintiff was accompanied by Suydam and two other young students. Sudyam got all the students in place and the chair lift began to rise. Based upon the testimony, the infant either spontaneously propelled herself forward or was pushed. Infant plaintiff believed that ‘someone like scooted by accident and then pushed me off, but not like pushed on purpose. They just scooted a bit and I just slid off under the bar.’ Suydam tried to grab the infant plaintiff, but was unable to get a good grip. Suydam was still holding the infant plaintiff for another thirty seconds before she fell 25 feet into the snow below. As a result of her fall, plaintiff sustained a broken leg.

Defendants argued that they were entitled to summary judgment because plaintiff’s fall was “an unfortunate accident”, defendants “satisfied [their] duty to make the conditions as safe as they appeared to be” and “[p]laintiff assumed the obvious risk of falling from the lift.” Further, defendants maintained that “[p]laintiff’s accident occurred only because she hopped forward in the seat just as Suydam had his arm raised to lower the safety bar.” Defendants also contended that there is no evidence that Suydam’s instruction was improper.

Plaintiffs successfully disputed Suydam’s claim as to when he allegedly lowered the bar, and further claimed that the lift operators delayed in stopping the lift, which also contributed to the accident. Plaintiffs also contended that whether the infant plaintiff could assume the risk of riding the lift is a question of fact at best, and argued that it is inapplicable to a four-year-old child.

Conflicting testimony in cases involving infants is a given.  Moreover the courts appear to bend over backwards to allow infant cases to proceed to a jury.

Thanks to Paul Vitale for his contribution to this post.

When is a Win Not a Win? (NY)

In Mitchell v Quincy Amusements Inc. (2019 NY Slip Op 00430), plaintiff sought to recover for personal injuries sustained from a slip and fall on popcorn oil present on the floor of one of the auditoriums in defendant’s multiplex theatre. Plaintiff did not realize she was injured until the movie was over and she realized she was having difficulties rising from her seat.

After the trial was completed, the jury rendered a verdict finding that the defendant was negligent, but that such negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff then moved to set aside the jury verdict as contrary to the weight of the evidence and for a new trial. The Supreme Court denied the motion and thereafter entered judgment in favor of the defendant and against the plaintiff dismissing the complaint. The plaintiff appealed from the judgment.

The Second Department Appellate Division found that the issues of negligence and proximate cause were so inextricably interwoven, that the jury’s finding that the defendant was negligent, but that such negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries, could not have been reached on a fair interpretation of the evidence. The plaintiff, and her friend who accompanied her on the day of the accident, both consistently testified that the plaintiff slipped and fell on an oily substance on the floor of the auditorium, and the defendants failed to submit any evidence to refute this testimony. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s motion to set aside the jury verdict should have been granted.

The case illustrates that certain fact patters almost require appellate practice before either side can discuss resolution.

Thanks to Meg Adamczak for her contribution to this post.

Lowering the Bar? (NY)

The Appellate Division, Second Department, recently took up the issue of whether a plaintiff involved in a motor vehicle accident may recover damages for lost earnings despite failure to prove a serious injury as defined by Insurance Law § 5102(d).

In Gore v. Cardany 2018 NY Slip Op 08632 (2d Dep’t 2018), plaintiff was rear-ended by the defendant while stopped at a red light. Plaintiff then commenced an action to recover damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained to his neck, back and left shoulder. At the time of the accident, plaintiff was in the course of his employment as a bus driver, and sought additional damages for past and future lost earnings in light of his inability to work following the accident. Plaintiff was granted summary judgment on the issue of liability and the case proceeded to trial on the issue of damages.

A Westchester County jury found that plaintiff’s injuries did not meet any of the threshold categories under Insurance Law § 5102(d), awarding him nothing at all for pain and suffering. Despite concluding that plaintiff had not sustained a serious injury, however, the jury awarded plaintiff for past lost earnings in the amount of $156,000 and future lost earnings in the amount of $750,000 (over 15 years.) Defendant thereafter moved to set aside this portion of the jury verdict. The trial court agreed, setting aside the verdict as to all damages.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reinstated the award for past lost earnings in the sum of $156,000, finding that plaintiff had established these damages with “reasonable certainty,” and as such, plaintiff had satisfied his burden of proof (see Lodato v. Greyhawk N. Am., LLC, 39 AD3d 494, 495; Harris V City Of New York, 2 AD3d 782, 784). Relying on provisions of the Insurance Law, the Court held that “a plaintiff is not required to prove that he or she sustained a serious injury as defined by Insurance Law §5102(d) in order to recover for economic loss exceeding $50,000 incurred as a result of a motor vehicle accident (see Insurance Law § 5104[a].” (Internal citations omitted). Thus, plaintiff’s own testimony that he had been unable to work because of the injuries sustained in the accident, together with submission of his W-2 forms, was sufficient to meet his burden of proof. By contrast, plaintiff failed to provide any competent medical evidence that he would be unable to perform any work in the future, and therefore failed to prove his damages for future lost earnings with the required reasonable certainty. Nevertheless, plaintiff was permitted to recover $156,000 for lost earnings despite failure to prove that he had sustained a serious injury under the Insurance Law.

Thanks to Tyler Rossworn for his contribution to this post.

Geico—15 Minutes Could Save You 15% or More on Car Insurance (PA)

On January 23, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned numerous published decisions consisting of decades of precedent deciding that the “household vehicle exclusion” found in many auto policies. The Gallagher v. Geico Indemnity Company decision shows how the Court reasoned that the “household vehicle exclusion” conflicted with the UM/UIM stacking provision codified in the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“PMVFRL”).

Gallagher was driving his motorcycle when the driver of a truck ran a stop sign. The truck crashed into Gallagher and he sustained serious injuries as a result. Importantly, Gallagher had two separate Geico auto policies. The first policy insured only the motorcycle and provided $50,000 in UIM coverage. The second Geico policy provided coverage for two of Gallagher’s other vehicles. It contained limits of $100,000 UIM coverage for each vehicle. In their analysis, the Court relied on the fact that Gallagher did not sign a specific waiver form to reject stacking. Instead, Gallagher actually paid higher premiums for stacked UIM coverage under the second Geico policy. Gallagher eventually settled the claim against the truck driver. However, he did not receive sufficient funds with respect to the serious nature of his injuries. Consequently, Gallagher sought $250,000 in UIM coverage from Geico.

Geico tendered its entire UIM policy limit of $50,000 pursuant to its first motorcycle policy but denied coverage with respect to its second auto policy as it contained a “household vehicle exclusion.” Geico filed a MSJ, citing applicable precedent which argued that Courts consistently enforce the exclusion. Upon application to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Gallagher argued that the household vehicle exclusion acted as a de facto waiver of stacking – which, pursuant to the PMVFRL, required a specific waiver form to be enforceable. Gallagher further argued – and the Court emphasized – that he specifically paid additional premiums for stacked coverage. The Court agreed that the household vehicle exclusion was a de facto waiver of stacking and thus violated provisions of the PMVFRL.

However, the Court did provide several other statements that appear to be glimpses of possible trends with respect to the “household vehicle exclusion”. First, Geico provided all relevant policies. The Court did admit this may change insurance underwriting practices. However, it emphasized here that Geico possessed all information regarding his insurance policies and collected higher premiums from him for stacked coverage.  Second, the Court, in a footnote, argued that any insurer could likewise be on notice of multiple policies, even from different carriers. The Court stated “[f]or example, when multiple policies or insurers are involved, an insurer can require disclosure of all household vehicles and policies as part of its application process.” Ostensibly, while the Court states multiple times that this case is unique as Geico provided all policies, this footnote is an ominous sign of changes to come.

Thanks to Matthew Care for his contribution to this post.

General Notice of Frequent Occurrence Not Sufficient to Show Actual Notice of Current Transitory Spill (PA)

In Karten v. Shop Rite the plaintiff claimed that she slipped and fell on some debris that was dark, slippery and smelled of rotten banana on the main walkway of the parking lot as she was leaving a Shop Rite grocery store.  The plaintiff sustained injuries to her knee, ankle and lower back, and filed suit for negligent maintenance of the premises.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the store had no actual or constructive notice of the spill.

In opposition to the motion, the plaintiff argued that the substance that caused her to fall constituted a dangerous condition of lasting duration.  Plaintiff further argued that Shop Rite had actual notice of a dangerous condition because it had received general complaints regarding debris near the parking lot garbage cans.  However, the Court found that general notice of a frequent occurrence was not sufficient to show actual notice of a current transitory spill.  The Court, in concluding that the substance amounted to a transitory spill, found no evidence of actual notice to the store of the banana’s presence, and concluded that a jury would have to resort to improper speculation.

In the alternative, plaintiff complained that Shop Rite failed to produce information regarding a store employee and the surveillance film of the incidence.  However, the Court found that the plaintiff manufactured these issues solely for the purpose of opposing summary judgment, as they were never pursued by the plaintiff within the discovery period.  Further, the Court found that the allegations in plaintiff’s opposition to summary judgment contradicted her prior pleadings and deposition testimony.

In granting summary judgment, the Court found that Pennsylvania law did not support the presumption that damaged debris served as sufficient circumstantial proof for the duration of a transitory spill, and concluded that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of establishing constructive notice.  Therefore, summary judgment was granted in favor of Shop Rite.

Thanks to Alexandra Perry for her contribution to this post.

WCM Is Pleased to Announce That Vivian Turetsky Has Been Promoted to Counsel

With effect as of January 1, 2019, WCM is pleased to announce that Vivian Turetsky has been promoted to the rank of counsel. Vivian focuses her practice on insurance coverage litigation on behalf of general liability, fine art, and jeweler’s block insurers in both state and federal courts in New York and New Jersey. Vivian joined WCM after practicing commercial litigation at both large and boutique litigation firms.

A Matter Of Factual Causation (PA)

In Mariana Koziar v. Neal T. Rayner and Andrea Rayner, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a plaintiff needed to establish factual causation, even when the defendant was found negligent and the plaintiff produced uncontroverted evidence of injury.

The plaintiff in this case, a house cleaner, slipped and fell as she exited a client’s garage door.  She severely injured her left ankle, requiring surgery, and subsequently sued the client/homeowners, alleging that the “lip” of the garage door was negligently constructed, and the driveway pavement was negligently maintained.  During trial, the jury heard differing accounts of how the accident occurred from the plaintiff herself.  At the trial’s conclusion, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the homeowners, finding that while they were negligent, their negligence was not the factual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

After the jury was discharged, the plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.  The trial court granted the motion, and the homeowners appealed.  On appeal the plaintiff argued that when a jury finds a defendant negligent and concedes the existence of an injury, the jury is not permitted to find that the defendant’s negligence was not a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injury.  The Superior Court rejected this argument, noting that Pennsylvania defines factual causation in the but for sense, and reversed the trial court’s order for a new trial.  The court concluded that while the jury could have found that the homeowners were negligent in any of the descriptions of the accident, it ultimately determined that the plaintiff had been negligent, herself.  The fact that there was uncontroverted evidence of an injury did not relieve the plaintiff of the burden to show factual causation.

Thus, this case illustrates the continued need of the plaintiff to carry his or her burden in order to prevail in an action.

Thanks to Robert Turchick for his contribution to this post.  Please email Colleen E.  Hayes with any questions.

Eastern District of Pennsylvania Grants Casualty Insurer’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Finding No Duty to Indemnify (PA)

In Myers v. GEICO Casualty Insurance Co.., the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Court granted Summary Judgment in favor of a casualty insurance company, holding that it acted properly because the driver of the vehicle was not an insured under its policy.  In brief, Chapman and Bond had attended an event together and after entering the event venue, Chapman asked for the keys to Bond’s vehicle because she needed to retrieve something. Upon arriving to the vehicle, Chapman noticed a parking spot closer to the event venue and proceeded to move Bond’s car to the closer spot without obtaining permission from Bond. While moving the vehicle, Chapman was involved in a collision with Myers. Jasmine Tucker, Bond’s girlfriend, was the named insured on the GEICO Policy, while Bond was listed as an additional driver. Chapman was not named under the Policy in any capacity. Myers sued Chapman, Tucker and Bond alleging negligence. GEICO did not defend Chapman, determining that she was not covered under the Policy because she operated the vehicle without permission.

In determining whether Chapman was an insured under the policy, the Court looked to the terms of the Policy. The Policy stated the insurer would “pay damages which an insured becomes legally obligated to pay” because of injury or damages from the use or ownership of an “owned auto.” Under the policy, an “insured” included “any . . . person using the auto with your permission.” The omnibus clause of an automobile insurance policy designated an insured as “any person using the insured vehicle with the permission of the owner, the permission necessary to elevate the user to the status of an additional insured may be express or implied.”  The court determined that implied permission could be established through a relationship or conduct surrounding the incident that demonstrated both parties acquiesced.  In finding that Chapman was not an insured under the policy, the Court considered the lack of express consent and the fact that Chapman had never driven Bond’s car previously. The Court rejected Chapman’s argument that Bond’s conduct of giving Chapman the keys amounted to consent.

This opinion demonstrates that it is possible for individuals not named on an automobile insurance policy to be deemed “insured” if there is consent to operate the vehicle, whether express or implied. However, in order to establish implied consent, the court will look to all the factors surrounding the incident to determine the presence of mutual acquiescence.

Thanks to Rachel Thompson for her contribution to this post.  Please email Colleen E.  Hayes with any questions.

Reassertion of Importance: Extending Time to Answer (NY)

In Lev Aminov, M.D., as Assignee of April Cuffy v. Allstate Ins. Co., the 2nd Department, Appellate Term held that a defendant’s attempt at vacating a default judgement and compelling plaintiff to accept its answer fell short.

This action was commenced on September 16, 2014 by service of the Summons and Complaint on an Allstate employee. A default judgement was entered on October 31, 2014, due to Allstate’s failure to appear or answer. Almost exactly one year later, Allstate moved pursuant to CPLR 5015(a)(1) and (4) to vacate the default judgement and compel plaintiff to accept defendant’s answer.

The court indicated that the law was clear on this issue. Allstate needed to “demonstrate both a reasonable excuse for the default and the existence of a potentially meritorious defense to the action.” Allstate offered an affidavit from a claims adjuster, but not from the individual who was served with the Summons and Complaint. The court also pointed out that it took Allstate eleven (11) months to move to vacate the default judgment. Taking these factors into consideration, the court concluded that Allstate did not provide a reasonable excuse for the default. Therefore, Allstate’s motion seeking to vacate the default judgement and compel plaintiff to accept its answer was denied.

Thus, this case illustrates the importance of timely filings, as well as the factual support likely needed to prevail in having a default judgment vacated.

Thanks to Marc Schauer for his contribution to this post.  Please email Colleen E.  Hayes with any questions.