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G&B successfully opposes Motion to Restore, leading to dismissal, of Suffolk County matter that presented unique property damage allegations

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By: Gartner & Bloom, P.C.
Date: September 27, 2018

Partner Arthur P. Xanthos and Associate Michael E. Kar successfully opposed a plaintiff’s Motion to Restore in a matter containing unique property damage allegations. Following the submission of opposition to the Motion, the case was dismissed.

See the decision here.

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SLIPPERY STAIRS AND THE LABOR LAW: NEW GUIDANCE, 

By Arthur P. Xanthos

Defense counsel and carriers should be aware of the recent Court of Appeals pronouncement on Labor Law 240(1) cases, particularly because this latest pronouncement provides a roadmap for defeating plaintiffs’ common stratagem – the summary judgment motion.

The decision is O'Brien v Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 2017 N.Y. LEXIS 725, 2017 NY Slip Op 02466 (N.Y. Mar. 30, 2017) The facts have been seen many times:  Plaintiff working on construction site, while descending an exterior temporary scaffold staircase which was wet and slippery due to rain, slips and falls thereby injuring himself.  Plaintiff sues all relevant parties and the focus of the complaint is Labor Law 240(1).

Plaintiff made the traditional summary judgment motion, supported by an expert affidavit from a professional engineer who opined that the stairs were "not in compliance with good and accepted standards of construction site safety and practice", that slippery conditions on stairways should be eliminated before use, and that the stairs in question were smaller, narrower, more worn, and steeper than typical stairs.  The expert concluded that these conditions coupled with the fact that the stairs were wet due to rain created a dangerous condition that was not in compliance with good and accepted standards of construction site safety and created a significant risk of slipping on the stairs and of thus falling down the stairs.
In opposition, defendants submitted affidavits from a construction safety expert, who disagreed with plaintiff’s expert, and opined that the staircase was designed for both indoor and outdoor use and provided traction acceptable within industry standards and practice in times of inclement weather. He further disagreed that the steps were too narrow, or that the step treads had been worn down.  He noted that the staircase provided both perforated holes to allow rain to pass through and raised metal nubs for traction.  He concluded that these anti-slip measures were sufficient. The defendants’ expert also opined that the use of both handrails could have helped prevent plaintiff's fall.
Not surprisingly, the lower court and the appellate division ruled in favor of the plaintiff on the motion.  The Court of Appeals, however, reversed plaintiff’s summary judgment award.  The Court’s primary rationale was the following:  the mere fact a plaintiff falls from a height on a construction site does not give rise to automatic Labor Law 240(1) liability, and where the defendants raise questions of fact as to whether a safety device (in the O’Briencase, the staircase) provided adequate protection to the plaintiff, summary judgment is not warranted.

While this decision and rationale is not a technical rewrite of Labor Law 240(1), it does mark a sea change in what presumptions the lower courts should make in analyzing these motions.  Heretofore, the process with some exceptions has been maddeningly difficult for the defense, because once a court heard that a plaintiff had fallen from a height and was injured, the court presumed – regardless of contradicting expert affidavits -- that inadequate safety devices were in place.  In other words, courts have been utilizing the fact of the fall to impose automatic liability. 

O’Brien counsels the courts against making that presumption.

                                                     -APX 5/26/17



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LANDLORDS  AND SECONDHAND SMOKE COMPLAINTS:
THE  APPELLATE DIVISION CLEARS THE AIR

By Joseph Rapice and Arthur P. Xanthos

This Firm recently won a successful appeal concerning whether a co-op has an obligation to guarantee an odor free apartment for a shareholder.  The appellate decision, Reinhard v. Connaught Tower Corporation, is available on this website under Publications.

Shareholder-tenant Susan Reinhard sued her co-op, the Connaught Tower Corporation, alleging that a cigarette smoke odor condition rendered her apartment uninhabitable for nine years, thereby forcing her to live in another premises.  Prior to trial, plaintiff had made a settlement demand of $600,000.00, essentially making settlement impossible and forcing a trial.

At a three-day non-jury trial, plaintiff testified that she, her family, and a close family friend smelled cigarette smoke in the apartment on a handful of occasions over a nine year period, although the source of the odor was never identified.  Plaintiff also proffered the testimony of an expert industrial hygienist, who testified that air passageways existed behind the walls in plaintiff’s apartment, implying that offensive odors could have been entering the apartment via those passageways.  The industrial hygienist also testified that he too smelled a smoke odor in the apartment during his inspections. 

In defense, we noted at trial that plaintiff’s expert, although he could have done so, failed to do a nicotine test.  We pointed out as well via cross-examination that such tests are inexpensive and easy to do.  We further demonstrated that without such objective testing and data, plaintiff could show no threshold amounts of any toxin (i.e.,secondhand smoke) in the apartment.   Essentially, we proved that the only objective evidence presented by plaintiff was that yielded by her nose – she smelled something she did not like.

At trial we also introduced other critical facts: plaintiff was a full time resident of Connecticut, never actually inhabited her apartment, and instead desired to use the apartment as a Manhattan pied a terre.

Despite these facts, the trial court ruled that the co-op had breached the proprietary lease and the statutory warranty of habitability, thereby constructively evicting Plaintiff.  The trial court awarded plaintiff a full return of nine years of maintenance payments in an amount of $120,000.00, and an award of attorneys fees.  In so ruling, the trial court found that “significant cigarette smoke permeates and pollutes the apartment,” that the apartment was “infiltrated by secondhand smoke”, and that the apartment was “smoke-polluted.” We appealed that decision.

On May 4, 2017, the Appellate Division First Department unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision, dismissed plaintiff’s complaint in its entirety, and awarded attorneys’ fees to our client – the co-op.  The appellate court held that the evidence failed to show that the subjective odor of cigarettes on a few occasions over nine years rendered plaintiff’s apartment uninhabitable.  Critically, the appellate court reasoned that plaintiff failed to show that the alleged odor was present on a consistent basis and that it was sufficiently pervasive as to affect the health and safety of the occupants. (The Court also noted that plaintiff lived in Connecticut and only intended to stay in the apartment occasionally.) 

The Reinharddecision marks a significant victory for building owners, cooperatives, and condominium boards, as well as for their insurers.  The trial court’s ruling had temporarily opened a Pandora’s Box with regard to habitability claims, as it seemed to imply that a tenant need only claim a subjective odor to recover a full rent abatement.   (Indeed, this Firm had seen an uptick in smoke odor cases following that decision.)  The Appellate Division First Department’s decision, however, reaffirmed two rules: (i) that a plaintiff-tenant must present objective evidence of the presence of a toxin, a threshold level of it, and proof of a causal connection to health and safety of an occupant; and (ii) that a claim based upon the habitability of an apartment dwelling requires proof that the plaintiff occupied the dwelling. 


                                                                                                                -5/9/17
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MOLD PERSONAL INJURY LAWSUITS: WHY DO THEY CONTINUE? By Arthur P. Xanthos

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In our August 6, 2014 article, we explained the import of the New York State Court of Appeals' Cornell decision -- without medical community acceptance of causation between mold and bodily injury, courts in New York State will dismiss lawsuits for bodily injury premised on mold.

Since the Cornell decision came down, this Firm has used it twice to dismiss mold-related bodily injury claims against our clients: first in June of 2014 in Benton v. 80 Cranberry, and now in August of 2016 in a case called Sylla-ba v. The Colton Condominium. (Both of these decisions can be accessed on the Firm's website, www.gartnerbloom.com, under Publications.)  In Sylla-ba, Justice Cynthia Kern reiterated what the Court of Appeals held: an 'association' between mold and the alleged symptoms of a plaintiff is not the same as 'causation' between them; therefore, proving that there is such an association is insufficient for the bodily injury claims to survive dismissal.  

Cornell should have resulted in a sharp drop in the number of mold-related personal injury lawsuits brought in New York's state courts; yet these lawsuits continue to be brought in roughly the same numbers as before Cornell. We suspect the reasons for this counter-intuitive statistic are, (1) the plaintiffs' bar's unfamiliarity with the 2014 Cornell decision (viz., the flawed belief that if you can get one doctor to say 'mold caused the plaintiff's illness', that such is sufficient), (2) the use of a mold-related bodily injury claim as an 'add on' claim to bolster the settlement value of the case, and (3) publication in the popular press of other states' mold verdicts and settlements.

So, we repeat what we wrote in our August 6, 2014 entry: Absent a major change in the science of mold illness, the next few years will see many more summary judgment decisions in favor of land owners and against mold plaintiffs.

                                                         -APX 8/15/2016
        
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New York City Building Owners and the Legionella Outbreak, by Arthur P. Xanthos

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This past week has seen an outbreak of legionella in buildings in the South Bronx section of New York City.  Legionella is the bacterium that causes legionnaires disease and flourishes in the water of air conditioning and central heating systems. Utmost concern is for the health and safety of building residents, and pending New York City regulations address this concern by imposing on building owners new registration, testing, and maintenance requirements. Given the number of deaths and hospitalizations already reported, building owners and their insurers should be aware of the following facts and suggestions:

1. There have been fewer than a dozen reported legionella/personal injury decisions in New York State in the last decade, and far fewer such decisions involving residential buildings. As in any toxic tort lawsuit, the legionella claimant will have the burden of proving that the building owner negligently allowed a toxin to develop (namely, legionella), and that the claimant was exposed to the toxin in an amount that caused injury to the claimant -- two very difficult though not impossible burdens to meet. (For a detailed discussion of the burden of proving causation in toxic tort lawsuits, see our prior blog entry titled Mold up in the Air: Settled.)

2. A building owner must report to its insurance carrier immediately any notice of bodily injury or property damage arising from the outbreak. A building owner should also notify its HVAC/cooling tower contractor, and the insurer for that contractor, of the incident(s).

3. The insurance carrier for its part must assemble a pre-lawsuit response team -- legal, engineering, medical, and environmental -- to investigate the premises and establish the facts.

4. New York City is now inspecting and testing building cooling systems. As these test results will be admissible in any subsequent lawsuit, building owners (or, preferably, their insurance carriers) should retain environmental consultants to photograph, monitor, and report on how the City performs the testing.

5. Finally, if the cooling tower or HVAC system is going to be dismantled or modified significantly, care should be taken to avoid a spoliation penalty.  (For a detailed discussion of this topic, see our prior blog entry titled Spoiling the Evidence, Spoiling the Case.) 

-APX 8/10/15





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WE'VE MOVED!

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G + B is pleased to announce the relocation of our New York offices. To accommodate our continued growth, you will now find us in significantly larger premises at 801 Second Avenue occupying the entire 11th floor. Our new state of art facilities are designed to serve our clients more effectively, and comfortably and efficiently accommodate our current professional and support staff as well as our anticipated expansion over the next several months and years.

Drop by to say hello and tour the new place!
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Ignoring Court Ordered Discovery Leads to Preclusion of Tenant's Claim, by Arthur Xanthos

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Dentists are fond of saying if you ignore your teeth, your teeth will go away.  The same is true in litigation: ignore your discovery obligations and your claim will go away. This Firm is defending a building owner in a case brought by a tenant (who happens to be a lawyer).  The tenant alleges among other things bodily injury from second-hand smoke in his apartment.  As is customary, we demanded medical authorizations (to secure medical records related to the tenant's treatment) and a bill of particulars compelling the plaintiff to particularize his bodily injuries.  We also made sure the court included those demands in several court orders.

For unknown reasons, the plaintiff-tenant-lawyer refused to hand over medical authorizations and refused to particularize his injuries.  After several attempts at securing the documents failed, this Firm made a motion to compel the tenant to produce the medical authorizations and to serve a meaningful bill of particulars. That motion resulted in an order, with which the plaintiff-tenant-lawyer failed to comply. So another motion was made, and this time an order was sought to preclude/dismiss the tenant's bodily injury claims.  That second motion resulted in a more stringent order setting another deadline for the tenant's compliance, and warning the tenant of penalties for non-compliance.  The tenant again failed to comply. At a subsequent conference and upon being advised of the tenant's non-compliance, the court after oral argument precluded the tenant from any bodily injury claims at trial, and dismissed any negligence claims found in his complaint.  A copy of this decision/order (Johnson v. 78/79 York) can be found at this Firm's website (www.gbglaw.com) under Publications.

Preclusion orders are very rare, especially against pro se plaintiffs.  Counsel should expect to make more than one motion, and should request a progressively stronger sanction with each motion made.  Obtaining such an order is not a quick exercise either, as it took nearly two years to secure the one discussed herein.                                                                  -APX 12/16/14
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Gartner + Bloom Lawyers Awarded SuperLawyer Distinction for 2014

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The Firm is pleased to announce that Ken Bloom and Arthur Xanthos have received the New York Metro Area SuperLawyers distinction for 2014. Ken received the SuperLawyer award in the area of construction litigation (http://digital.superlawyers.com/superlawyers/nyslrs13?pg=81&search_term=bloom&doc_id=-1&search_term=bloom#pg81) while Arthur received his in the area of business litigation (http://digital.superlawyers.com/superlawyers/nyslrs14#pg77).
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Arbitrating Indemnity Issues During the Pendency of a Supreme Court Action, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our last article warned of a pitfall with the traditional arbitration clause - ‎an arbitrator may end up with a power (e.g., the power to award punitive damages) that was never intended by the parties. Here we highlight another arbitration issue that has arisen several times in our practice.

Assume an Owner (O) hires a General Contractor (GC) to do work on a construction site, and the standard AIA form contract is executed containing a mandatory arbitration clause providing that "all disputes between the parties arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by binding arbitration under then applicable commercial arbitration rules". Plaintiff-worker (P) trips and falls while working on the site and sues both O and GC, alleging ‎negligence, as well as violations of the New York State Labor Law (the "Lawsuit"). O and GC each answer the Lawsuit and assert cross-claims against each other for contribution, defense, and indemnification.

All of the above is standard fare and occurs almost reflexively. But then something unusual happens: O's counsel files an arbitration demand, demanding that ‎GC arbitrate the issue of whether GC owes O defense and indemnification in the Lawsuit (the "Arbitration"). Inter-defendant arbitration of an indemnity obligation in the context of a pending personal injury lawsuit is an unusual tactic, and raises a host of procedural problems. For example, what happens to the rest of the case as the arbitration proceeds? What if the arbitration requires the resolution of other issues that have not yet been decided by the court? What if the arbitration takes the case beyond “standards and goals”? New York courts have come up with methods of dealing with the procedural problems. See, e.g., Weiss v Nath, 97 A.D.3d 661, 664 (2d Dep't 2012); County Glass & Metal Installers, Inc. v. Pavarini McGovern, LLC, 65 A.D.3d 940, 940-941 (1st Dep't 2009); and 624 Art Holdings, LLC v. Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6440, 26-27 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 7, 2012). But even assuming counsel is willing to navigate the attendant procedural problems, in our opinion inter-defendant Arbitration of part of a Supreme Court action can only be justified in one of two circumstances:

1. Where a quicker resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit, and that speed is worth the arbitration fees; and/or
2. Where a more favorable resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit.

It is likely that New York counsel always will conclude that a quicker resolution would occur in the Arbitration. Counsel could also conclude that a more favorable resolution would occur in the Arbitration under the following scenarios:

1. If the rules applicable to the Arbitration (but not applicable to the Lawsuit) generate a better result -- of course then Arbitration would be advisable. But to make this decision counsel must retrieve the applicable Arbitration rules, review them for application to the indemnity issue, and compare the result with that obtained via the Lawsuit.
2. If the particular arbitrator used comes from a construction background and therefore knows or “feels” that such indemnity obligations should regularly be enforced -- here too Arbitration would be advisable.

So the conclusions are these: If the Arbitration would yield a more favorable result, choose inter-defendant arbitration regardless of the fees for arbitration. If the arbitration would yield a quicker result, and a result no worse than that yielded in Supreme Court, choose to arbitrate if you are willing to pay the cost to arbitrate in exchange for a speedier decision. In all other cases, bide your time and wait for the assigned Justice to make the decision on summary judgment.

APX 10/8/14
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Binding Arbitration: A New Timebomb for Lawyer and Client, by Arthur Xanthos

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It is customary to recommend to a range of clients that they agree to binding arbitration as a mechanism to resolve future disputes under an agreement. Arbitration is often regarded as a cheaper, quicker alternative to litigation.  The typical arbitration clause reads as follows: "Any dispute arising under this agreement shall be resolved by arbitration before the American Arbitration Association in New York City under the commercial arbitration rules then in effect." It is just as customary in the same agreement to choose a particular State law, e.g., New York law, to govern the resolution of future disputes.  A simple version of this choice of law clause reads as follows: "This agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York."

Yesterday, the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, had the opportunity to consider a case involving an agreement containing both clauses.  A limited liability company's operating agreement contained both an arbitration clause and a choice of law (New York) clause. But the commercial arbitration rules (mandated by the arbitration clause) conflicted with New York State law (mandated by the choice of law clause) in one important respect: commercial arbitration rules permit an arbitrator under some circumstances to assess punitive damages against a party to the arbitration.  New York State law, on the other hand, does not permit an arbitrator to assess punitive damages.  So when an agreement contains both clauses (commercial arbitration rules, and New York State choice of law), may an arbitrator award punitive damages?

Yes, said the Appellate Division in a sharply divided 3-2 decision. Matter of Flintlock Constr. Servs. LLC v. Weiss, 2014 NY Slip Op 05818 (8/14/2014).  The majority held that the operating agreement's choice of law provision, in the absence of additional limiting language, "is insufficient to remove the issue of punitive damages from the arbitrator".

The Flintlock decision is problematic for two reasons: First, what do contracting parties do about their already executed agreements that now have conflicting clauses? It is barely overstatement to say that the overwhelming majority of shareholder agreements, operating agreements, asset sale agreements, and even employment agreements contain both of these clauses.  Second, how should such agreements be drafted going forward?  Pending an appeal of the Flintlock decision, attorneys should follow the First Department's direction and place limits on the arbitrator's power to impose punitive damages.  The new clauses might read as follows:

              "ARBITRATION. Any dispute arising under this agreement shall be resolved by arbitration before the [NAME OF ARBITRATION TRIBUNAL] in [LOCATION].  The arbitration shall be conducted under commercial arbitration rules then in effect, but the arbitrator(s) shall resolve the dispute in accordance with the laws of the State of New York without giving effect to principles of conflict of laws. The arbitrator(s) shall have the limitations on his, her and their power and authority as are found in New York State law, including without limitation no power or authority to award or assess punitive damages."

                "CHOICE OF LAW. This agreement, its validity, construction, and enforcement, shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York, without giving effect to principles of conflict of laws."

                                                                                            APX 8/15/14 



     

  
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Mold Up in the Air: Settled, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our January 16, 2014 entry entitled “Mold Up in the Air” discussed the pending appeal of Cornell v. 350 West 51st St. Realty LLC, a case which concerned whether a plaintiff could get to a jury on her claim that indoor residential mold caused her respiratory injuries. We pointed out that the Court of Appeal’s questioning at oral argument portended a potential reversal and defeat for mold plaintiffs. And that is in fact what has happened. The Court of Appeals (2014 NY Slip Op 02096) granted the defendant landlord and coop summary judgment, and dismissed the bodily injury claims of the Cornell plaintiff. The decision is a difficult read, but the lessons yielded are clear.

Some background: the plaintiff in Cornell alleged that throughout her occupancy of a co-op apartment, the co-op building's "basement was in a wet, damp, musty condition"; that the radiator in her apartment's living room "leaked on numerous occasions" and "continued to leak and also released steam into the Apartment" despite the co-op’s attempts at repair; that in July 2003 she first noticed and notified the co-op that "there was mold growing in the [apartment's] bathroom," but the co-op "ignored" this condition; and that beginning in the first week of October, 2003, the landlord and/or its contractor performed demolition and/or construction work in the basement of the co-op building, permitting noxious dust, dirt, mold and debris to be released, which infiltrated her first-floor apartment.  What were her injuries? The Cornell plaintiff claimed that "[i]mmediately after" the landlord and/or its contractor performed the work in the basement, she became dizzy, disoriented, covered with rashes, unable to breathe, light-headed, congested, experienced tightness in her chest, had severe headaches, had shortness of breath, had a metallic taste in her mouth, and experienced other physical symptoms.

At the Frye hearing (brought on by defense motion), the defendants used an immunologist/epidemiologist who assessed plaintiff’s claim that "a significant portion of her physical and psychological problems is related to adverse reactions stemming from exposures to molds," and, after review of her medical records and the relevant science, opined with reasonable medical certainty that there was no relationship between the medical problems experienced by Ms. Cornell and exposures to molds (i.e., no specific causation). The defendants’ expert also opined that a causal relationship between indoor residential mold and Ms. Cornell’s injuries was not generally accepted in the medical community (i.e., no general causation).

Plaintiff’s medical expert opined to the contrary, and pointed to numerous studies that supported an association between indoor residential mold and illness. But as the Court of Appeals explained, “studies that show an association between a damp and moldy indoor environment and the medical conditions that [plaintiff's medical expert] attributes to Cornell's exposure to mold (bronchial-asthma, rhino-sinusitis, hypersensitivity reactions and irritation reactions of the skin and mucous membranes) do not establish that the relevant scientific community generally accepts that molds cause these adverse health effects.” (The causation/association battle line was explained in detail in our January 16 entry.)

The Court of Appeals could have ended its decision there (since without proof of general causation, plaintiff must be turned away), but it went further: even assuming that the plaintiff in Cornell demonstrated general causation, she did not show the necessary specific causation. (For a theory of causation to survive under Frye, both prongs of causation – general and specific – must be proved.) The Court of Appeals decision alludes to the fact plaintiff failed to show specific causation because she did not set forth “exposure to a toxin, that the toxin is capable of causing the particular illness and that plaintiff was exposed to sufficient levels of the toxin to cause the illness (specific causation)." The Cornell plaintiff’s expert had tried to prove specific causation by differential diagnosis. The Court of Appeals dismissed that attempt: “Differential diagnosis, of course, 'assumes general causation has been proven'". This last pronouncement is of incredible importance to the defense of toxic tort claims, as the number of clinicians who use differential diagnosis to support an opinion on causation is legion.

This Firm already has had opportunity to use the Cornell decision at the trial court level to our client’s advantage (see Benton v 80 Cranberry Street, in “Publications” above).  Absent a major change in the science of mold illness, there is every reason to believe the next few years will see many more summary judgment decisions in favor of land owners and against mold plaintiffs.

                                                        APX 8/6/14
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Pre-Loss Risk Management Meetings with Insureds, by Arthur Xanthos

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Liability insurance carriers have several methods of managing the risk posed by their insureds' operations. One little used but very effective technique is the pre-loss risk management meeting between the insured and the carrier, or between the insured and an attorney hired by the carrier.

 In the case of a general contractor ("GC")insured, the procedure runs generally as follows: a GC that intends to develop land purchases a general liability insurance policy from an insurance carrier. As part of the insurance binder, the GC is obligated to meet with an attorney to review the subcontract agreements used by the GC, and to review the safety of its operations. (The carrier if it wishes can charge the GC a sum in addition to the premium to cover the cost of the meeting.) The meeting is then held between the attorney and the GC, during which subcontracts and insurance certificates are reviewed, and safety measures on the construction site are looked at (particularly those that might trigger New York State Labor Law liability). The attorney then makes suggestions to improve the GC's paperwork and its safety measures.

Rather than rewriting the insured's subcontracts entirely (an expensive, and likely vain pursuit), the attorney will want to leverage the time spent by focusing on three areas during the meeting with the insured: (1) the quality of the indemnity language in the insured's subcontracts; (2) the accuracy and proper wording of any insurance certificates from the subcontractors; and (3) the responsibility for safety on the construction site. It is these three areas that will pay the most dividends in the event of a loss.

In our experience conducting risk management meetings, not more than half of the contractor insureds we meet have both a valid indemnification provision in their favor, and a properly drafted insurance certificate from their subcontractors. Following a well run risk management meeting, however, the insured's subcontracts will have a valid and unambiguous indemnification clause running in favor of the insured, the insured's subcontractors will have made the insured an additional insured on the subcontractor's liability insurance policy, the insured will have received a tutorial on the strict safety rules applicable to owners and contractors on a construction site, and the carrier's adjustment of a future claim will be a matter of passing the defense and indemnity of the insured to the subcontractor and its insurance carrier.

So a proper risk management meeting will benefit both carrier and insured. For these reasons, all general liability insurance carriers should consider utilizing risk management meetings. Four points, however, should be kept in mind: (1) the insured is not always receptive to such meetings, even if the insurance binder requires it. Consequently, you will find that the meeting often takes place long after the insured starts work on the site; (2) you are counting on the insured taking the advice of the attorney. There is little recourse, however, if the insured does not do so (other than perhaps a non-renewal of the policy); (3) it is not a requirement that an attorney conduct these meetings -- an experienced adjuster can be just as effective; and (4) the average time to prepare for and conduct the meeting is six hours. The amount charged to the insured, if any, should reflect that anticipated cost.

                                                                                                          -APX 2/14/14
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Spoiling the Evidence - Spoiling the Case, by Arthur Xanthos

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The legal doctrine of spoliation permits a court to punish a party who destroys crucial evidence prior to the other party having had an opportunity to inspect that evidence.  Sometimes the punishment for spoliation is dismissal of the case (if done by plaintiff) or preclusion of a defense (if done by defendant).

Spoliation considerations arise often in premises liability and toxic tort cases.  For example, if a plaintiff disposes of personal property that was damaged from a water leak, and the defendant has no other means of assessing the damage to that property, the court can dismiss the plaintiff's property damage claims.  Similarly, if a plaintiff renovates or remediates his allegedly toxic apartment prior to giving the defendant an opportunity to test whether that apartment was truly toxic, then the court can dismiss plaintiff's claims relating to the toxic nature of the apartment.  See, e.g., Theodoli v.170 E. 77th 1 LLC, 40 Misc. 3d 135(A)(N.Y. App. Term 2013).

In our experience, it is not uncommon that a plaintiff in a case we are defending disposed of her "moldy" clothes, or fixed  her water-damaged walls, prior to bringing the lawsuit; but such actions leave the plaintiff open to spoliation penalties, possibly including the dismissal of the entire case.

A database search of reported New York State case law reveals 247 decisions from 2000 through 2006 that mentioned spoliation.  In the next seven year period (2007 through 2013), the number of such decisions was 555.  What accounts for the 225% increase in spoliation decisions?  There are several reasons.

A motion for spoliation penalties is straightforward, can be made anytime -- pre-trial, in limine, or during trial, and has virtually no downside and significant potential upside.  Further, and perhaps most relevant, courts in the First Department appear to be imposing stronger spoliation penalties more often than they have in the past.

Theodoli v.170 E. 77th 1 LLC, a case handled by this Firm, is illustrative of the trend toward stronger spoliation penalties.  There, a tenant's mold and toxic tort claim was dismissed because he renovated his apartment prior to the defendants' environmental consultant gaining access to test the apartment.  On motion, the environmental consultant testified that once an apartment is "cleaned", it is no longer possible to determine whether the apartment was previously toxic.  So, because the tenant had destroyed crucial evidence and prevented the defendant from testing the apartment in its allegedly toxic state, his mold and toxic tort claim was dismissed. That decision came down in the Fall of 2013.

The start of 2014 saw the continuation of the judicial trend toward strong spoliation penalties.  On January 9, 2014, the First Department came down with a spoliation decision in Malouf v. Equinox Holdings, 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 163.  Plaintiff Malouf injured herself on a Life Fitness treadmill at an Equinox gym.  She sued the Equinox gym, which in turn sued the maker of the treadmill.  Equinox, however, had disposed of the subject treadmill prior to the lawsuit; so no party was able to examine it.  The court punished the Equinox for its spoliation by dismissing the Equinox's claim against the maker of the treadmill; the court also precluded the Equinox from arguing at trial that the treadmill in question worked properly -- a punishment which could be the functional equivalent of summary judgment for the plaintiff.


The trend in spoliation case law offers two simple lessons, one proactive and the other prophylactic.  First, courts are more willing to entertain spoliation motions and less reluctant to impose strong spoliation penalties; therefore, counsel should be constantly mindful of the potential for making a spoliation motion, and should pursue diligently the discovery necessary to secure strong spoliation penalties against the adversary.  Second, counsel should from the beginning advise the client on the need to avoid spoliation penalties, by preserving damaged property and by maintaining the status of any object, item, or environment that is crucial to the lawsuit.           

                                                                                                     -APX 1/24/14

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Adjacent Landowner Liability for City Sidewalk Defects, by Arthur Xanthos

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For nearly a decade, the New York City Administrative Code has imposed on landowners the responsibility of maintaining the sidewalks adjacent to the landowner's premises.  Thus, a passerby who slips and falls on the sidewalk outside your building can look to the building owner as a possible defendant.


By definition, condominium boards are not landowners.  So if a passerby slips and falls on a sidewalk adjacent to a condominium building, who is the adjacent landowner for purposes of liability?


This Firm has seen plaintiff counsel sue the condominium itself, which we believe eventually results in a dismissal because the condominium is not a landowner and the NYC Administrative Code provision is interpreted strictly.  So that leaves one other possibility on whom to impose liability for a sidewalk defect -- the owner of the particular condominium unit closest to the site of the trip and fall (occupied most likely by a ground floor commercial tenant of the unit owner).


In light of uncertain litigation with these quirky facts, ground floor condominium unit owners who rent out their unit should obligate the tenant to maintain and repair the sidewalk adjacent to the unit, and to defend and indemnify the unit owner (and the condominium board of managers) in the event of a lawsuit.  We note that while many form leases obligate tenant to keep the adjacent sidewalk clean, they leave unclear the responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and repair.


Of course, the condominium unit owner should also insist on proof that the tenant has adequate liability insurance and has named the unit owner (and, of course, the board of managers) as additional insureds on the insurance policy.
     

                                                                                                 -APX 1/19/14
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The Legal Fees Sword, by Arthur Xanthos

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Many proprietary leases between a Co-op and a shareholder-tenant contain a boilerplate legal fees provision, obligating the shareholder-tenant to pay reasonable attorneys fees if the Co-op has to sue to enforce a provision of the lease. Because most lawsuits between Co-ops and shareholders are relatively quick summary proceedings in landlord-tenant court, the attorneys fees in question tend to be modest.

Sounds great, right? Except that sometimes it’s the shareholder-tenant who sues the Co-op (e.g., on a claim that the Co-op has breached the warranty of habitability), and by operation of the Real Property Law it is the shareholder-tenant who will be owed the reasonable attorneys fees if he or she prevails. These shareholder initiated lawsuits usually are plenary actions in Supreme Court, take years to litigate, and the attorneys fees in question can be substantial.   Our Firm's experience is that most Co-ops are willing to take that risk; thus, the boilerplate legal fees provision remains, well, boilerplate in most proprietary leases.

We believe however that serious consideration should be given to removal or modification of the legal fees provision in proprietary leases. Here is why. Assume a shareholder-tenant’s apartment is flooded due to a burst pipe from inside a wall. For whatever reason (inattentive Board, inexperienced managing agent), the apartment is not repaired for several months, and the shareholder-tenant relocates to a hotel. Disillusioned with the slow pace of repair, the shareholder-tenant repairs the apartment herself and sues the Co-op in Supreme Court for out-of-pocket expenses (the hotel bills, dry cleaning cost), the cost of repair (putting up new walls and ceiling), the damage to her personal property (furniture, artwork), a refund of maintenance payments for the period in question, and attorneys fees under the proprietary lease. The shareholder-tenant's lawsuit is based, in part, on the allegation that the Co-op breached the proprietary lease. If the shareholder-tenant prevails on her claim, she is likely entitled to attorneys fees, and the amount will be far more than the typical amount generated in the usual summary proceeding. That is because a fully litigated plenary action almost always generates significantly more legal fees than a summary proceeding generates. Worse for the Co-op, the award of attorneys fees to the shareholder-tenant (and for that matter, any award refunding maintenance payments) is almost never covered by the Co-op’s general liability insurance policy. Thus, a Co-op that has the boilerplate legal fees provisions in its proprietary lease and loses such a case will, (a) have to pay with out-of-pocket, non-insurance dollars, and (b) have to explain to its shareholders the reason for the hit to the Co-op's finances.

With no attorneys fees provision in the proprietary lease, the Co-op never faces this scenario; but must a Co-op forgo entirely the right to collect attorneys fees in all cases involving shareholder-tenants? Maybe not. Consider this: a proprietary lease that allows recovery of legal fees but only up to a specified dollar amount, say $15,000.00. In the majority of non-payment proceedings against shareholder-tenants, the Co-op will in most instances be made whole, as the legal fees generated will not exceed the specified dollar amount (i.e., $15,000.00). On the other hand, the maximum exposure the Co-op would face in Supreme Court if a shareholder-tenant prevailed would similarly be limited to $15,000.00, and most likely result in a “savings” of tens of thousands of dollars. In this light, a modified attorneys fees provision can be considered an additional insurance policy for the Co-op. We are unaware of any reported case addressing the validity of such a modified attorneys fees provision, but there is no good reason why a well-drafted limited attorneys fees provision wouldn’t be enforced in accordance with ordinary contract principles.

                                                                                             -APX 1/17/14
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Noises Off, by Arthur Xanthos

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What is a Co-op obligated to do when one shareholder-tenant complains that another shareholder-tenant is too noisy? Consider the following: Shareholder-tenant on 4th floor sues Co-op and shareholder-tenant on 5th floor. The complaint alleges that the 5th floor tenants are unreasonably noisy, and that the Co-op has failed to resolve it. As real estate development in New York City continues to accelerate, such complaints are becoming commonplace.

Co-ops are landlords, so by law they are deemed to have warranted to tenants that the premises are habitable. An unreasonably loud building obviously can make an apartment uninhabitable. But what if the ‘noise’ complained of is caused by another shareholder-tenant? Further, what if the noise is sporadic, or difficult to record or measure objectively? Such cases pose nettlesome problems for co-ops, managing agents, and their carriers, because money damages are often not the primary goal of the plaintiff. How do you resolve a claim where the plaintiff wants peace and quiet, the defendant-tenant argues that the noise is the natural by-product of a happy, busy family life, and the Co-op cannot control the noise or the plaintiff’s reaction to it?

In our practice, we have seen or suggested several, non-orthodox settlement possibilities: (1) The Co-op can pass and enforce more stringent carpeting and padding rules; (2) Subject to cost, the Co-op can invest in soundproofing materials at the ceiling, floor, or wall interfaces; (3) The parties can explore an apartment swap, or a buyout/sale; (4) The Co-op can monitor noise (via a property manager or superintendent) and assess reasonable fines based on violations of a well-defined noise policy; and (5) If warranted and authorized under the proprietary lease, the Co-op can attempt a dispossess proceeding based on the offending tenant creating a nuisance. See, e.g., Domen v. Aranovich, 1 N.Y.3d 117 (2003). Failing resolution, a strong summary judgment motion on behalf of the Co-op is imperative, keeping in mind that as recently as a few days ago the First Department kept a Co-op in a lawsuit while dismissing the offending, noisy tenant from the case! Brown v Blennerhasset Corp., 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 188, 1-3 (1st Dept. Jan. 14, 2014).

                                                                                                   -APX 1/17/14
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Mold Up in the Air, by Arthur Xanthos

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On January 13, 2014, the New York State Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the appeal of Cornell v. 360 W. 51st Realty, which is the latest First Department word on whether and when a claim alleging bodily injury due to mold can survive for presentment to a jury.
Cornell was decided by the First Department on March 6, 2012, and is generally regarded to have made it easier for a plaintiff’s mold claim to survive summary judgment under a Frye analysis.  (Fryerequires that for a plaintiff’s claim to survive, it must be generally accepted in the relevant scientific community that the offending agent (mold, asbestos, etc.) causes the claimed injury.)
A decision is likely months away but if the questions from the Court of Appeals bench during oral argument are any indication, Cornell stands an excellent chance of reversal or modification.
The Justices focused primarily on the difference between the word “causation”, and the term “association”.  While science recognizes many associations, it recognizes far fewer causations -- and that is the entire point of Frye.  If the relevant scientific community does not generally accept that A (e.g., mold) causes B (e.g., asthma), then plaintiff cannot prove causation and must be turned away. The Cornell plaintiff showed “association” between mold and illness; will that be enough for plaintiff’s case to survive for presentment to a jury?
About two years ago, this firm handled a Frye hearing in Supreme Court, Kings County in which the sitting Justice presciently asked the same question the Court of Appeals just did -- what is the difference between causation and association?  In other words, do scientists (doctors) use “association” to mean the same thing that a layperson means by “causation”?  This question gets at the very root of the confusion in some of the case law on whether to allow expert testimony under Frye.
Hypotheticals, some absurd, highlight the issue.  There may be a strong association between men with grey hair, and mortality; or between membership in a sailing club, and sunburn; or between those who make appointments with Dr. Smith, and sickness.  But it would never be argued seriously that the former causes the latter.  That, in a nutshell, is why New York requires proof that causation is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.
So Cornellwill likely turn on whether the Court of Appeals views causation and association as starkly different as these examples illustrate, or whether it accepts the more highbrow argument that causation and association are the same thing, differing only in the degree of experimental proof available for each.
                                                                                    - APX 1/16/14
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