Howdya Like Them Apples? (NY)

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?  Finding half a worm in your apple.  (Wait for laughter.)

Speaking of apples, apple-picking has become a common autumn activity, when orchards convince people to pick their own apples while taking in the ambiance.  But legal principles still obviously apply to orchard-owners and invitees.

A landowner’s duty to maintain property does not include warning or protecting from “open and obvious” conditions that are not inherently dangerous. In the event that there is a concealed or dangerous condition, the landowner then is required to warn of that condition.

Recently, the First Department extended the scope of open and obvious and inherently dangerous in its decision on Mangiafridda v. Masker Fruit Farms, Inc., App. Division 1st Dept. (Jan. 3, 2019)(not yet reported). In Mangiafridda, plaintiff was apple picking at defendants apple orchard when she tripped and fell due to a sloped and rocky roadway on the premises. The defendant moved for summary judgment arguing that the condition of the roadway was open and obvious, inherent in the nature of an apple orchard and that plaintiff could have reasonably anticipated that the roadway would not be smooth.

The lower Court granted the defendants motion and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court found that not only was the roadway open and obvious but the defendant also posted warning signs regarding the sloped and rocky roadway. The Court found that the defendants did not have a duty to warn or protect of the condition, but even if they did, they met that duty by posting warning signs.

This decision diverges from the typical caselaw on this topic in that the Court found that the condition was “inherent to an apple orchard” not that it was “not inherently dangerous” which the typical standard is when assessing a property owner’s duty as it pertains to an open and obvious condition. This distinction, while slight, opens the door for defendants to argue that a condition is not dangerous if it is one that is “inherent to the location” of the accident and could have been anticipated to be present by the plaintiff. This distinction could be helpful to defendants where accidents occur due to inherent conditions or in typically dangerous circumstances.

Thanks to Dana Purcaro for her contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

Plaintiff’s Slip-and-Fall Claim Put on Ice (NJ)

During a snowy morning in February, plaintiff, a courier, was making his rounds delivering packages to residents. The previous night, several inches of snow had accumulated on the sidewalks abutting numerous residential properties. In the early morning hours, defendant Louis Gallo removed the snow from the sidewalk in front of his residential property using a shovel and a snow blower. Following this morning errand, Gallo went to work while snow continued to fall.

A couple hours later, plaintiff arrived at defendant Gallo’s property to deliver a package, while it was still snowing, and he slipped on ice that was concealed by snow. Plaintiff remained immobilized for a few minutes, and was subsequently taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a dislocated and fractured patella. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Gallo, claiming that his fall was caused by a hidden hazard in the form of ice underneath fresh snow on the sidewalk.

Following discovery, defendants filed for summary judgment. In his opposition, plaintiff argued that defendants created a greater hazard by shoveling the snow into mounds alongside the public sidewalk which then melted and refroze on the sidewalk. The trial court granted defendants motion for summary judgment and plaintiff appealed. The appellate court, citing Foley v. Ulrich, 94 N.J. Super. 410, 424 (App. Div.), held that a residential property owner does not owe a duty to the public where the property owner shovels the snow from the sidewalk, and ice forms on the sidewalk after the shoveled snow melts. The court reasoned that the danger to the safe use of the sidewalk which existed when plaintiff fell was solely caused by natural forces, i.e. the freezing and melting of snow. The court opined that this natural phenomenon would have occurred even if defendants had not shoveled the sidewalk.

Further, the court held that public policy supports shielding residential property owners from this form of liability as there is a societal interest in encouraging people to clear public sidewalks and avoiding the inequity of imposing liability on those who voluntarily choose to do so. Moreover, the undisputed testimony indicated that it continued to snow even after defendant shoveled the snow and additional snow accumulated – leading to the conclusion that defendants did nothing to create a new danger or hazard.  As such, the appellate court affirmed the trial courts holding granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Putting aside the “storm in progress” aspect of this ruling, we expect the outcome may have been different in New York, where “freeze and thaw” conditions often prompt denial of summary judgment.  Thanks to Steve Kim for his contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.


Bar Fight Liability: Taking it Outside (NY)

In Covelli v Silver Fist Ltd., 2018 NY Slip Op 08914 (2nd Dep’t December 26, 2018), the plaintiff, an administrator of a decedent’s estate, commenced an action against an individual, Roll, and bar defendants to recover damages for negligence and wrongful death.  Plaintiff’s decedent died from injuries sustained as a result of an altercation with Roll in the public street outside the bar.

The Second Department ruled that it is uniformly acknowledged that liability may be imposed only for injuries that occurred on defendant’s property, or in an area under defendant’s control, where defendants had the opportunity to supervise intoxicated guests and that a landowner, not being insurers of a visitor’s safety, have no duty to protect visitors against unforeseeable and unexpected assaults.

Here, as the altercation was outside the premises and control of the bar defendants and was a sudden and unforeseeable event, the lower Court’s order granting the bar defendants motions for summary judgment dismissing the complaint was affirmed. There was no comment regarding the irony of the bar’s name.

This case is of particular interest in that it allows the bar defendants off the hook for liability even when the altercation occurred right outside the bar.  However, although a beneficial opinion towards the defense bar, experienced defense attorneys will be cautious when using this case in similar bar fight scenarios as this opinion appears to show no evidence of the altercation brewing inside the bar before stepping outside.  In cases where evidence is present where the altercation starts developing in the bar it may be more difficult to as clearly differentiate when the bar’s duty to prevent the altercation starts.

Thanks to Jonathan Pincus for his contribution to this post.

Landowner Not Liable for Slip and Fall During Active Weather Event (PA)

In Beauford v. Second Nature Landscaping and Construction, Inc., the plaintiff claimed that he slipped and fell in March of 2015 outside an apartment building owned by Definitive Properties, LLC (“Definitive”).  At that time, Definitive had contracted with Second Nature Landscaping and Construction, Inc. (“Second Nature”) to provide snow removal services.  The contract required Second Nature to automatically respond within 24 hours when the snow reached a certain depth.  On the day of the accident, it began raining around 2:00 PM.  That day, the temperature remained above freezing and at 10:30 PM, the time of the plaintiff’s alleged fall, the temperature was between 44 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit.  According to the plaintiff, he slipped and fell on an ice puddle that formed sometime between 11 AM and 10:30 PM.  Plaintiff filed suit against both Second Nature and Definitive seeking damages for his personal injuries.

Both defendants filed for summary judgment, which was granted, and plaintiff appealed.  The court relied on the hills and ridges doctrine in Pennsylvania, which states that a plaintiff must show snow and ice accumulated on the sidewalk in ridges or elevations of such size and character so as to unreasonably obstruct travel and constitute a danger to pedestrians.  The Court further stated that the only duty of the property owner is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove the snow and ice when it is in a dangerous condition.

The Court found that although there was no factual dispute that the plaintiff slipped and fell on a purported ice puddle during an active weather event, i.e. at a time when generally slippery conditions prevailed in the community.  Finding that under Pennsylvania law, a landowner has no obligation to correct conditions until a reasonable time after a winter storm has ended, there was no obligation at that time by either Definitive or Second Nature to remove snow and/or ice at that time.  Therefore, defendants’ summary judgment motions were granted.

Thanks to Alexandra Perry for her contribution to this post.

Translation Dispute and Hearsay Testimony Precludes a Finding of a Question of Fact in Labor Law Case Resulting in Summary Judgment for Plaintiff (NY)

In Nava-Juarez v Mosholu Fieldston Realty, LLC, the Appellate Division reversed a Supreme Court decision and granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiff in a Labor Law case, and addressed the issue of hearsay testimony in opposition and translation disputes.

The plaintiff claimed he was injured when the ladder he was working on shifted suddenly.  In support of his summary judgment motion, the plaintiff provided an affidavit of a coworker who witnessed the accident and averred that plaintiff was painting the exterior facade of defendant’s tavern when his ladder shifted, causing plaintiff to fall from his position three-quarters of the way up the ladder.

In opposition, the defendants argued that a workers compensation form contained statements from the plaintiff with a different version of how he was injured.  The plaintiff’s workers compensation form stated the accident happened “while walking I fell down stairs.”

The Supreme Court Bronx County denied the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment under Labor Law § 240(1).  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed this ruling.  In its opinion, the Appellate Division held that the defendants failed to raise a triable issue of fact because hearsay, standing alone, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.

Further, the Court noted that the workers compensation form was prepared by plaintiff’s worker’s compensation attorney with the aid of a translator.  Plaintiff testified that he told the translator “Mientras estaba trabajando me cai de una escalera,” and asserts that the statement should have been translated as “While working I fell off a ladder.”  The decision notes that the Spanish word “escalera” may be translated as either “stairs” or “ladder” and in this case, there were no “stairs” to speak of as the premises is a one-story building and did not have an exterior staircase.   The Appellate Division ruled that the plaintiff was incapable of discovering the error in the translation of the description of his accident because he could not read English and correct the statement.

The summary judgment denial was reversed because the defendants were obligated to show that plaintiff was the source of the information recorded in the workers compensation form indicating that he fell from “stairs,” and that the translation was provided by a competent, objective interpreter whose translation was accurate, a fact generally established by calling the translator to the stand at trial.

Special thanks to George Parpas for his contribution to this post.

It’s Not Enough Just to Prove Negligence – Causation is Key (PA)

On December 7, 2018, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed a grant of post-trial relief in favor of plaintiff in Koziar v. Rayner.  

The case stems from a slip-and-fall which occurred on the property of Neal and Andrea Rayner.  Koziar worked as a house cleaner for the Universal Group, and was assigned to clean the Rayner’s home. She and her co-workers finished cleaning between 7:00 pm and 7:15 pm and proceeded through the laundry room of the house into the attached three-car garage.  She testified she was unfamiliar with the area and that she fell and injured her ankle on a lip while exiting the garage.  However, she provided conflicting stories of her accident to her treating physician all of which was documented in his reports.

At trial, the Rayner’s argued that the alleged “lip” between the garage apron and garage floor was in good condition and that they were not negligent. After hearing testimony from both parties, the jury returned a verdict that the Rayner’s were negligent, but their negligence was not a factual cause of the harm to Koziar. 

Following the verdict, Koziar filed a motion for post-trial relief which was granted as the trial court determined that once the Rayner’s were deemed negligent and only Koziar’s uncontested medical evidence was presented, the jury’s finding thatthe Rayner’s were not the factual cause of Koziar’s injuries defied logic.

As such, the Rayner’s appealed arguing that, while theyconceded that Koziar suffered an injury based on the medical evidencepresented, they did not concede that their negligence was the factual cause ofKoziar’s injury.  In reversing the trial court’s grant of post-trial relief, the court indicated that the fact that there was uncontroverted medical evidence does not relieve the plaintiff from proving that the negligence of the Rayner’s caused Koziar’s injuries.  The court noted that Koziar provided multiple accounts of how she fell and the jury could have found one or more of them credible.  Therefore, the jury’s verdict did not defy logic, but the trial court’s grant of post-trial relief in this matter certainly did.  Every element of negligence must be proven and there’s no short-cuts if there’s negligence and damages but no causal connection.

Thanks to Garrett Gittler for his contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.


The Customer is Always Right (NY)

Retailers should be weary of holiday shoppers this season, particularly in light of the Second Department’s recent decision siding with a customer who tripped and fell on a low table in a Hollister Co. store.

Defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the placement of the table was open and obvious, and further that plaintiff walked in an area not meant for ingress/egress. In support of its motion, defendant submitted plaintiff’s deposition transcript, where plaintiff testified that he did not see the table before falling because the store was dark, and the low table was obscured by a taller, larger table placed near it.

The Second Department overruled the lower court’s dismissal, finding that defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the condition created by the subject table was open and obvious in light of the surrounding circumstances despite defendants submitting evidence as to the lighting conditions and presence of other customers in that area.

The Court also noted that the testimony of defendant’s employees further demonstrated that the area traversed by plaintiff was an “egress,” which made a possible accident more foreseeable.  Thanks to Theresa Dinh for her contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

The Customer is Sometimes Wrong (PA)

In Thomas v. Family Dollar, the plaintiff was shopping in the Family Dollar store when she slipped on a thick, yellow substance next to a broken glass bottle.  She filed a complaint in state court, but it was removed by the defendant to federal court.

Plaintiff alleged that the Family Dollar was negligent in breaching its duty to keep its premises clear of substances on the floor.  The Family Dollar moved for summary judgment, arguing that the substance was an open and obvious condition and it owed the plaintiff no duty of care.

In deciding on the motion for summary judgment, the court noted that it was uncontested that the plaintiff was a business invitee, and that Pennsylvania law limited the duty of care owed to business invitees.  Plaintiff acknowledged that there were no visual obstructions surrounding the liquid that would have concealed it from her view, but argued that she was otherwise focused on the products displayed on the shelves.  The Court, however, stated that it was Hornbook law in Pennsylvania that a person must look where she is going and further noted that other Pennsylvania courts have rejected plaintiff’s argument.  The Court observed that although a lesser degree of attention was required of customers in stores than those walking along sidewalks, the general rule still applies that where one is injured as a result of a failure on her part to observe and avoid an obvious condition, she would not be heard to complain.

The Court found that the substance that plaintiff slipped on posed an obvious condition and its danger should have been readily apparent to a person exercising normal perception and judgment.  Therefore, the Court found that the Family Dollar had no duty to plaintiff, and granted its summary judgment motion.  The Court further noted that the plaintiff failed to prove that the Family Dollar had adequate notice of the condition to breach a duty of care. Thanks to Alexandra Perry for her contribution to this post.  Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.

Spotlight on Broadway Theater’s Duty to Pedestrians (NY)

A theatergoer forced into the street due to a crowded lineup loses her bid to be compensated for her injuries that occurred not on that crowded sidewalk, rather in the street.

The First Department has upheld a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice’s grant of summary judgment to defendant landowner in Quigley v Nederlander Org., Inc, where plaintiff injured in front of a Broadway theatre. Plaintiff testified that upon arriving at the theatre, she and her group were directed to join the line to enter the building. As plaintiff followed her group to the back of the line, she stepped onto the street and her heel was caught in a crack between two metal plates causing her to fall. Plaintiff alleged that the theater was negligent because she forced to maneuver her way through a crowded sidewalk onto the street.

Defendant theatre owner, Nederlander Organizations, Inc. d/b/a The Lunt-Fontane Theatre, established entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Defendant was not on notice of any dangerous crowding condition or of a hazardous condition on the street close to the area where patrons stood in line.

Notably, plaintiff did not identify that an overcrowding condition restricted her movement or that defendant directed her to walk on the street. Plaintiff acknowledged that the sidewalk traffic was made up of pedestrians and patrons and that the crowd was tame. The court noted that, even if the entire width of the sidewalk had been overtaken by the crowd, defendant owner still could not be liable for plaintiff’s injuries absent prior notice of a dangerous condition. Further, it was unforeseeable that directing plaintiff to join the line would have placed her in harm’s way.

Thus, since plaintiff was unable to raise a triable issue of fact as to defendant’s negligence, the First Department upheld summary judgment, based on evidence showing that plaintiff’s own culpable conduct in attempting to strategically maneuver her way through the crowd and ultimately caused her injuries.

We see an increasing number of cases involving pedestrians who claim injuries due to sidewalk configurations. This case clarifies the landowner’s duty for future litigation.

Thanks to Theresa Dinh for her contribution to this post.

The Espinal Defense and Plaintiff’s Pleadings (NY)

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.