New York Personal Injury: Who Owes a Duty?

As we’ve discussed before on this blog, personal injury liability is determined in a manner that (in theory at least) resembles a checklist. Did the defendant owe a duty to the plaintiff? Check. Did the defendant breach that duty? Check. Did the breach of that duty cause harm to the plaintiff? Check. Duty, breach, causation, and harm: the four checkpoints of tort liability.

The above makes this all sound easy when in fact, in actual lawsuits, it is anything but. In this post, we will examine a legal concept relating specifically to the duty element. How do we know when a duty is owed to another? As we’ll see, this also implicates the concept of causation – how far do courts extend “blame” for the actions undertaken by a defendant in a personal injury suit?

snowy lot.jpgThe case of Espinal v. Melville Contractors, an important 2002 action decided by the New York State Court of Appeals, helps to explain the concept of duty. The facts are fairly simple: the plaintiff, Ms. Espinal, slipped and fell in the parking lot of her employer, Miltope Corporation. Ms. Espinal sued Melville Snow Contractors, the company hired to plow the lot. The issue before the Court was whether Melville owed a duty to Ms. Espinal, which would be necessary for a finding of liability. Or did Melville’s duty only extend to its client, Miltope Corporation, with whom it had signed a contract?

Generalizing a bit, the principle we’re discussing here is useful when, for one reason or another, a plaintiff wishes to bring suit against a so-called “third party” – not the owner of the premises or property that caused your injury, but someone in contract with that person. For example: you get severe food poisoning from popcorn served to you by a movie theater. You soon learn that the theatre itself is bankrupt, so suing them may be an exercise in futility. But the popcorn maker, a different company than the theatre, is not. May you sue the popcorn maker?

The Espinal court identifies three situations where a plaintiff can seek damages from a third party, all having to do with the extent of the contractual undertaking by said third party. The greater the contractual duty assumed by the third party, the easier it will be to prove that the third party is liable to the plaintiff.

Espinal is an example of the law working as we would expect it to. As the Court makes clear, when a plaintiff has relied on the continued proper performance by the third party, that plaintiff should be able to sue the third party if that proper performance ceases or becomes deficient. Similarly, if the third party has essentially replaced the owner or “first party defendant,” they will also be assuming certain liabilities. To bring us back to the movie theatre analogy, if a company rented out and operated every aspect of the theater without owning it, they would be liable for the selling of bad, sick-making popcorn.

As for Ms. Espinal, she unfortunately was unsuccessful. The court looked to the contract between the owners of the property where Ms. Espinal fell, and the snow removal company, which has agreed to remove snow and/or lay salt only when very specific conditions were met. Notably, the contract did not simply say, “We will keep your property snow-free, 24/7.” If it did, there’s a good chance Ms. Espinal would have prevailed.

If you feel that an individual or property owner has breached a duty causing an injury to you, or you think you may need to speak with a personal injury lawyer about an Espinal-like situation you have suffered, please contact our offices. We are happy to assist.

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