Two Recent Decisions From New York’s First Department Regarding Premises Liability

Today, two decisions were issued from the First Department pertaining to premises liability.  The first decision concerns the “sole proximate cause” defense and the second decision reiterates the notion that an owner of premises will not be insulated from liability merely because it complies with the building codes.

1.  Building owner not negligent because the plaintiff’s decision to climb out the window was the sole proximate cause of her accident.

In Royal v. New York City Housing Authority, Index No. 14818 (N.Y. App. Div. [1st Dep’t] April 16, 2015), a third-party was an illegal squatter in an apartment building owned by the defendant.  One night, the third-party invited the plaintiff (a nineteen-year-old who apparently did not know that the third-party was in the building illegally) to the apartment.  Upon receiving noise complaints, the landlord and police officers entered the eighth floor apartment and arrested the illegal squatter.  The plaintiff attempted to escape through a window by climbing down a cable that was affixed to the side of the building, but she fell, which resulted in injuries.  Plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the building owner was negligent in failing to have appropriate window guards on an eighth-floor window and failing to have proper security to prevent the third-party from illegally squatting in the building.

In the trial court, Justice Paul Wooten noted that although the trier of fact normally determines proximate cause, where only one conclusion may be drawn from the facts, proximate cause can be decided as a matter of law.   Royal v. N.Y. City Hous. Auth., 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6213, at *6 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. [N.Y. County] Dec. 20, 2013).  Justice Wooten held that “the reckless conduct of plaintiff, an adult, who climbed out of the window in order to avoid being arrested, was an unforeseeable superseding event that absolves defendant of liability.”  Id. at *7 .

The First Department affirmed this ruling because “her deliberate intervening act of attempting to leave the building through an eighth-floor window was the sole proximate cause of her injuries.”  Thus, although the building owner may have been negligent, the plaintiff’s willful decision to attempt to exit through a window was an intervening act and became the sole proximate cause of her injuries.

2.  Summary judgment inappropriate because the common law duty to maintain a stairwell in a reasonably safe condition may include installing a handrail despite the fact that the Building Code does not require one.

In Branch v. SDC Discount Store, Inc., Index No. 14839 (N.Y. App. Div. [1st Dep’t] April 16, 2015), the plaintiff was attempting to inspect pipes located in the basement of a gift shop, and was using stairs to the basement that had a wall on one side but no railing on the other.  As the plaintiff was descending the stairs, he lost his balance and fell through the unguarded side of the staircase.  The First Department affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the staircase was not an “interior staircase” and, as such, the lack of a handrail was not a violation of any applicable portion of the New York City Building Code.  Nonetheless, summary judgment for the defendant was appropriately denied because an occupier of the premises has a duty to maintain a staircase in a “reasonably safe condition, in view of all the circumstances.”  It was held that there were issues of fact regarding “whether defendant was negligent in maintaining the staircase without any handrail or guard,” irrespective of the Building Code.  In other words, compliance with building codes will not, in-and-of-itself, insulate a property owner from liability in a civil lawsuit.


Danny Lallis (852x1280) (3)

Written by Danny C. Lallis

Danny is a Partner with Pisciotti Malsch, and his practice includes appeals, product liability, and commercial litigation.

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