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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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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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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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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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