Articles Posted in Recent Court of Appeals Decisions

New York’s “no-fault law,” found in § 5104 of the New York Insurance Law, limits a plaintiff’s ability to recover non-economic damages in an auto accident claim. “Non-economic damages” are often the greatest losses in car accidents and other injury cases. They go beyond direct expenses like medical costs and lost wages. They include an accident victim’s pain and suffering, emotional anguish, and other harms that often occur because of a serious accident. The no-fault law only allows recovery of non-economic damages in cases involving “serious injury.” New York courts regularly hear disputes over whether an auto accident injury meets the statute’s definition of “serious injury.” Two recent cases from the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, Buchanan v. Keller and Broadwood v. Bedoya, demonstrate the sort of evidence needed for certain “serious injury” claims.

Section 5102(d) of the Insurance Law provides a list of injuries that constitute “serious injury” under the no-fault law. The items on the list range from the specific, such as “death” or “dismemberment,” to the more ambiguous. Two of these items are subject to ongoing dispute in the courts:
– “Permanent consequential limitation of use of a body organ or member” (PCL); and
– “Significant limitation of use of a body function or system” (SL).

A defendant moving for summary judgment on a “serious injury” claim has a prima facie burden of demonstrating that a plaintiff’s alleged injury does not meet the statutory definition. A plaintiff can counter this by establishing a “triable issue of fact.” In a 2009 decision, Staff v. Yshua, the Appellate Division, Second Department found that the defendant met this burden through expert testimony. The defendant presented an affirmation from an orthopedist who examined the plaintiff and concluded that their “injuries were now resolved and without permanency.” The court held that the plaintiff “failed to raise a triable issue of fact” in opposition to the defendant’s evidence. In a case from 2011, Jilani v. Palmer, the court found that the plaintiff had met their burden by producing an affidavit from a chiropractor that challenged the findings of the defense expert.
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New York construction law places extensive obligations on property owners and general contractors to provide a safe work environment. The New York Labor Law (NYLL) allows workers and others to file civil suits for damages if violations of safety requirements cause injury. These claims can be made in addition to claims under the common law of negligence. Section 241(6) of the NYLL codifies the set of safety regulations known as the Industrial Code. Recent court decisions from New York Appellate Courts demonstrate how workers in New York State can assert claims for injuries caused by violations of § 241(6).

Section 241(6) of the NYLL applies to all sites where “construction, excavation or demolition work” is ongoing. It requires any site to be “constructed,…operated and conducted” in a way that “provide[s] reasonable and adequate protection and safety” to anyone “lawfully frequenting” the site. It authorizes the New York Department of Labor to promulgate rules to allow effective enforcement. The Industrial Code, found in Title 12, Chapter I, Subchapter A of the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations (NYCRR), is the result of this authorization. It includes regulations regarding construction and demolition operations, as well as building codes, and rules for equipment like elevators and boilers.

The New York Appellate Division, Second Department described § 241(6) as a “nondelegable duty of reasonable care upon owners and contractors.” Lopez v. New York City Dept. of Envtl. Protection, 123 A.D.3d 982, 983 (2014). Under the common law theory of negligence, a defendant is liable for damages when they breach of a duty of care owed to the plaintiff, and that breach causes the plaintiff injury. Section 241(6) essentially states that property owners and general contractors owe a duty of care to construction workers to abide by the Industrial Code.
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In a very important decision for the safety of bus passengers, the New York Court of Appeals recently held in the case of Doomes v. Best Transit Corp. that a bus company could be found responsible for a failure to install passenger seat belts. Under New York State statutes, there is no specific requirement that passenger buses be equipped with seat belts. However, the Court determined that by common law (not statutory but by decisions over the years) a jury could find that an owner or manufacturer of a bus could be responsible for injuries from an accident due to a lack of seat belts.

The plaintiffs in Doomes were injured when the bus drove off the highway after the bus driver fell asleep. Clearly, the bus driver was at least partially responsible for the accident, but the jury decided that many of the passengers’ injuries would have been averted if the bus had been equipped with passenger seat belts (the driver did have a seat belt).

The defense attempted to argue that federal law, which does not specifically mandate passenger seat belts in buses) preempted the state jury’s decision in Doomes. In fact, the dissent argued that The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made a “conscious decision” that seat belts in buses were unnecessary due to their “size and function.” Thus, the dissent contended that the field of bus safety was in fact regulated by federal law, leaving no room for a contrary decision by a state court jury. However, the Court of Appeals noted that a clause in the federal regulation (known as a “savings clause”) “did not expressly prohibit plaintiffs’ seat belt claims.”

The Court did reject another claim by plaintiffs as to the “weight balance” of the bus, in which the plaintiffs argued that the negligent design and manufacture of the chassis affected the weight balance, leading to the rollover. In that regard, the Court ruled that plaintiffs’ arguments were speculative and not supported by sufficient evidence.

The Doomes decision is one more example of the best news for the safety of New York accident victims in 25 years—the ascendancy to Chief Judge of the Court Of Appeals of Jonathan Lippman in February of 2009. Justice Lippman, who has shown in his almost three year tenure that when the evidence warrants same, he is truly dedicated to the rights of those injured through the negligence of others, despite the large scale and well financed efforts of automobile liability insurance companies, hospital CEO’s, and large corporations to fight these efforts at every turn.

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