Defendant snow-tubing adventure park (represented by TICL member Gary Cusano) met its burden of proving plaintiff’s primary assumption of risk but plaintiff (represented by TICL member Jim Kelly) raised a question of fact.

While snow tubing at defendant adventure park, plaintiff was injured when her snow tube, which was linked to the snow tubes of her two daughters, slipped up and over the outer barrier of her snow tubing lane and collided with a padded metal pole some 30 to 70 feet away.

At the conclusion of discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis of plaintiff’s primary assumption of risk.  The Third Department held that although defendant met its burden of proof on its motion, plaintiff raised questions of act, so defendant’s motion was properly denied.

The Third Department cited the black-letter law that under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a voluntary participant in a recreational activity such as snow tubing consents to those commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation, but the participant does assume the risks of reckless or intentional conduct or concealed or unreasonably increased risks.  Awareness of the risk of engaging in a particular activity is to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff, and application of the doctrine generally presents a question of fact for a jury to resolve.

Defendant met its burden of proof on its motion for summary judgment that plaintiff assumed the inherent risk that her snow tube would go over the top of the snow berm and collide with one of the nearby padded polls.  Defendant’s evidence consisted of photographs of the snow tubing hill and the deposition testimony of Windham’s project manager, of plaintiff, and of one of plaintiff’s companions on the day in question, and more specifically:

  • The project manager testified that
    • On any given day, there could be between six and ten snow tubing lanes open at defendant adventure park and the lanes were separated by manufactured snow berms, which could range in height from one and one half feet to two and one half feet.
    • The height of the berms could decrease over the course of a day as a result of melting or tubes wearing them down and that, although tubers generally should not be able to go over the top of the berms, he had occasionally seen that happen.
    • At the time of plaintiff’s injury, there was no policy prohibiting lane attendants from spinning patrons prior to their descent.
    • The number of tubes, if any, that could be linked together was determined by lane safety attendants at the bottom of the hill based on their observations and assessments of the weather and resulting lane conditions.
  • The photographs and the testimony of the project manager and plaintiff’s companion demonstrated the existence of several padded poles, which were situated between 30 and 70 feet away from plaintiff’s lane and were readily observable from both the hill and the lift line to the top of the hill.
  • Plaintiff testified that
    • She had some experience with snow tubing before her accident, having snow-tubed three years earlier and completed several prior runs that day without incident.
    • Regarding the injury-producing run, which occurred around 3:00 p.m., plaintiff and her daughters had decided to ride tandem and that, when asked if they wanted to be spun, she had said yes.

Plaintiff therefore assumed the inherent risk that her snow tube would spin out of control, go over the top of the snow berm and collide with one of the nearby padded poles, so the burden shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate that defendant concealed or unreasonably enhanced the danger or created conditions which were unique or above those inherent in the activity

Plaintiff succeeded in doing so by the deposition testimony of her companion and the project manager, which raised questions of fact that the weather and the condition of the lanes and snow berms on the day in question were such that spinning and in-tandem tubing were contraindicated and should not have been allowed:

  • Plaintiff’s companion testified that she walked from plaintiff’s lane to the pole with which plaintiff had collided and found the terrain to be “icy” and “hard.”
  • The project manager testified that
    • Based on his examination of the glare and shadows in the photographs taken on the day of the accident.
    • The lanes and snow berms appeared “icy” and that the lanes were “probably getting a bit frozen over” and “fast.”
    • When the lanes “iced up” and became too fast, the lane safety attendants at the bottom of the hill were supposed to either cut down the number of tubers that were permitted to ride together or prohibit tandem riding altogether.
    • He had previously observed snow tubers leave their lanes as a result of being spun.

Plaintiff therefore raised a factual issue as to whether the risk of injury was unreasonably increased by the actions of the lane attendants by allowing plaintiff and her daughters to ride tandem and spinning their tubes prior to their descent under the particular weather and terrain conditions at the time of plaintiff’s injury.   The order was therefore affirmed with costs.

Thompson v Windham Mtn. Partners, LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 03415 (3d Dep’t May 10, 2018).

The tale of two U-turns: one innocent-driver defendant obtained summary judgment via the emergency doctrine defense; the other did not.

The First Department granted defendant Innocent Driver summary judgment under the emergency doctrine because Innocent Driver faced “egregious circumstances” when Tortfeasor Driver made a U-turn from the outside lane of a four-lane road crossing the inside lane where Innocent Driver was traveling, giving Innocent Driver only a “couple of seconds” to react.  Morales v. Chuquillanqui, 2018 NY Slip Op. 02139 (1st Dep’t March 27, 2018) .

In Morales, plaintiff was a passenger in defendant Tortfeasor Driver’s car.   Both vehicles were traveling the same direction on a four-lane road, with Tortfeasor Driver in the outside lane and Innocent Driver in the inside lane “some distance” behind Tortfeasor Driver.  Tortfeasor Driver made a U-turn from the outside lane across the inside lane in front of Innocent Driver, giving Innocent Driver  only a couple of seconds to react.  Innocent Driver attempted to steer to the left to avoid the collision but collided with Tortfeasor Driver’s car.  Because of these “egregious circumstances”, Innocent Driver was entitled to summary judgment under the emergency doctrine as a matter of law and plaintiff failed to raise a question of fact as to whether Innocent Driver’s reaction was reasonable.

On slightly different facts, however, the Second Department reversed summary judgment in favor of a plaintiff-passenger against an Innocent Driver and affirmed the denial of Innocent Driver’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint and all cross claims.  Vuksanaj v Abbott, 2018 NY Slip Op 02199 (2d Dep’t 2018)

In Vuksanaj, plaintiff was a rear-seat passenger in Tortfeasor Driver’s car which was travelling eastbound on Route 17K in Newburgh.  [Google Maps shows that Route 17K in and around Newburgh is a two-lane road with a speed limit of 30 mph in and around Newburgh.]  Innocent Driver was traveling behind Tortfeasor Driver.  When Tortfeasor Driver made a U-turn, Innocent Driver collided with Tortfeasor Driver’s car.  The two drivers gave conflicting deposition testimony as to how the accident happened.

Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment against Innocent Driver was reversed because plaintiff relied on the deposition testimony of herself and Tortfeasor Driver in which they both testified that they had been drinking alcohol at a fraternity party before the accident.  Because plaintiff had to prove not only that Innocent Driver was negligent but that plaintiff herself was free from comparative negligent, the Second Department held that plaintiff failed to disprove her comparative negligence because the question of fact as to whether she knew of Tortfeasor Driver’s possible intoxication created a question of fact as to her comparative negligence.

Regarding Innocent Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Innocent Defendant likewise had to prove his own absence of negligence.  Innocent Defendant submitted Tortfeasor Driver’s testimony which raised a question of fact as to whether Innocent Driver was following too closely.  Because Innocent Driver failed to establish his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, his cross motion was properly denied without regard to the sufficiency of the opposition’s papers.

In an insurer’s action for a declaration that it owed no duty to indemnify its insured for sums the latter paid to settle a civil-rights suit, the insurer defeated the insured’s motions to dismiss by raising questions of fact.

The Insurer insured a school district and its officials (“School District”) under a primary CGL and School-District-and-Educators-Legal-Liability policy and an umbrella CGL policy.  In the underlying action, students alleged that the School District had violated the students’ civil rights by the School District’s deliberate indifference to anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination perpetrated by other students against the students.  More specifically, the students alleged that

  • The School District deliberately ignored complaints and its own observations of student-on-student anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination, or responded in an unreasonable or inadequate manner to such complaints and observations;
  • There were repeated and frequent incidents of anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination against the students by other students, which were reported to the School District on many occasions and directly observed on other occasions, which gave rise to an inference that the School District “intended for the harassment to occur” based upon the School District’s practices, policies, and customs in dealing with reports and observations of anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination;
  • The School District “intentionally discriminated” against the students,
  • The School District’s conduct “aided and incited” unlawful discrimination; and
  • The School District’s acts and omissions were “undertaken recklessly and with the intent to engage in wrongful conduct.”

The Insurer defended the School District through the resolution of the underlying action but disclaimed any duty to indemnify the School District.  At mediation in the underlying action, the students and the School District settled the underlying action for $3,000,000 in compensatory damages and $1,480,000 for the students’ attorneys’ fees. A representative of the Insurer attended the mediation but the Insurer paid nothing toward the settlement.

Thereafter, the Insurer commenced the subject declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it owed the School District no indemnification for the settlement because (a) coverage for the claims in the underlying action were excluded by the Insurer’s exclusion for intentional discriminatory conduct and (b) the students’ claims were neither a covered “occurrence” nor “loss” as those terms were defined by the policies.

The School District moved to dismiss under CPLR 3211(a)(1) (defense founded on documentary evidence) and CPLR 3211(a)(7) (failure to state a cause of action) premised on the theory that intentional acts can have unintended consequences that constitute “accidents” which therefore must be covered “occurrences” or “losses” under the Insurer’s policies.

Policy exclusion for intentional discriminatory conduct exclusion.  The School District argued that because intentional acts can have unintended consequences that constitute covered “accidents”, the Insurer’s exclusions for intentional discriminatory conduct had to fail.  But the Second Department held that the insurance policies did not conclusively establish that the Insurer was obligated to indemnify the School District, and that unspecified “other evidence” submitted by the School District did not “utterly refute” the factual allegations set forth in the Insurer’s complaint.  Whether the incidents set forth in the students’ complaint were accidents was a “question of fact” that could not be determined on a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) or (7)

A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) (defense founded on documentary evidence) requires that the documentary evidence utterly refute plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establish a defense as a matter of law, and be unambiguous and of undisputed authenticity.  Here, the insurance policies which the School District submitted as documentary evidence did not provide a complete defense to the Insurer’s claim that the Insurer owed no duty to indemnify the School District.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) (failure to state a cause of action) requires the court to accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory.   Where, as here, evidentiary material was submitted and considered on a motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) without the motion being converted to a motion for summary judgment, the question is whether the plaintiff has a cause of action, not whether the plaintiff has stated one.  Dismissal is warranted only where defendant shows that a claimed material fact is undisputedly not a fact at all.  Here, the insurance policies failed to show that plaintiff’s claims were invalid causes of action.

Covered “occurrence” or “loss”.  The CGL policy covered bodily injury caused by an “occurrence,” which was defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” The School-District-and-Educators-Legal-Liability policy covered a “loss,” which excluded matters that may be deemed uninsurable under the law.

Insurance policies are to be construed according to the sense and meaning of the terms which the parties have used, and if they are clear and unambiguous the terms are to be taken and understood in their plain, ordinary and proper sense.   Whether an event or series of events qualifies as an accident is a question of fact, so that the issue of whether the incidents alleged by the students were accidents were “questions of fact” that could not be determined on a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) or (7).

Graphic Arts Mut. Ins. Co. v Pine Bush Cent. Sch. Dist., 2018 NY Slip Op 01565

(2d Dep’t March 9, 2018)

Plaintiff store-customer was not entitled to add Security Company as a defendant in plaintiff’s action against Kmart because the proposed claim failed to state a cause of action.

Plaintiff store-customer was not entitled to add Security Company as a defendant in plaintiff’s action against Kmart because the proposed claim failed to state a cause of action.

Security Company hired by Kmart owed no duty to plaintiff, a Kmart customer who was injured in a fight with a Kmart employee inside a Kmart store.  First, plaintiff was not an intended third-party beneficiary under the contract between Kmart and Security Company because the contract contained a “No Third Party Beneficiaries” clause.

Second, plaintiff made no claim that he detrimentally relied on Security Company’s continued performance of its contract with Kmart.  Plaintiff’s affidavit said nothing about plaintiff’s knowledge of the contract or about plaintiff’s detrimental reliance on Security Company’s continued performance thereunder.

Third, Security Company did not “entirely displace” Kmart’s duty to protect its customers.  The written scope of Security Company’s services included “the protection of … customers … in the Premises,” but the deposition testimony of the loss prevention manager at the relevant Kmart store clarified that, in actual practice, Security Company’s services at that store were limited to deterring shoplifting.  In addition, Kmart retained supervisory authority over Security Company’s guards and required Security Company’s staff to complete training in accordance with Kmart’s safety policies and procedures.

Plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint to add the Security Company hired by Kmart as a defendant was therefore denied for failure to state a cause of action.

Santiago v. K-Mart Corp., 2018 NY Slip Op 01296 (1st Dep’t Feb. 27, 2018)

Life insurer rescinded the policy – Plaintiff-widow followed with negligence cause of action against life insurance agent and agent’s employer(s).

Plaintiff-widow had negligence cause of action against life insurance agent, who was brother-in-law of decedent, and agent’s employer(s) after the life insurer rescinded the policy because of decedent’s misrepresentations on the application about his health.

Plaintiff’s husband (“Decedent”) had reached out to defendant Pontillo (“Agent”), who was Decedent’s brother-in-law and financial advisor, to obtain additional term life insurance coverage.  Agent acted as the writing agent in applying for a $5 million term life insurance policy from Life Insurer that named plaintiff as beneficiary.  Decedent completed a medical examination questionnaire as part of the application which contained misstatements of fact. The policy was issued in 2011.  Decedent died within the two-year contestable period.  Life Insurer denied plaintiff’s claim for the insurance proceeds because of Decedent’s failure to disclose his history of substance abuse treatment and cocaine use and rescinded the policy.

Plaintiff commenced this action in pertinent part against Agent and Agent’s alleged employers E-1 and E-2, alleging that Agent submitted an inaccurate insurance application to Life Insurer while representing to plaintiff that the policy issued upon it was valid. In lieu of answering, E-1 moved to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action and as being precluded by documentary evidence.  Agent and E-2 served an answer and then moved to dismiss the complaint on the same grounds as E-1’s motion.  (Plaintiff had also sued the Life Insurer whose motion to dismiss was granted and that decision was not appealed.)

E-1 argued unsuccessfully that Agent was not its employee, relying on a representative agreement in which Agent was categorized as an independent contractor.   The Third Department noted, however, that (a) such a portrayal does not settle the fact-specific question of whether an employer-employee relationship existed between E-1 and Agent and (b) plaintiff produced proof that Agent used office resources at E-1’s headquarters in contravention of the representative agreement, corresponded using E-1’s email address, and had E-1’s business cards and letterhead.

E-1 also argued equally unsuccessfully that Agent could not have sold term life insurance under its banner and supplied its membership agreement with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority which lacked the necessary authorization to sell term life insurance.  Plaintiff responded with E-1’s brochure which expressly proclaimed that E-1 offered term life insurance products and another brochure from E-1 referencing insurance sales through its “affiliated insurance agency” E-2.  Because of the conflicting documentary proof and the unclear relationship between E-1 and E-2, E-1 failed to show it had no connection to the Life Insurer’s policy.

Agent and E-2 claimed that only the decedent had standing to recover for any negligence in applying for the policy, citing black-letter law that where an insurance agent’s negligence causes an insured to be without coverage, the agent cannot be held liable for damages sustained by an injured third party as a consequence thereof if the third party is not in privity with the agent and is not an intended beneficiary of the insurance contract.  But the Third Department, held that plaintiff was indeed the intended beneficiary of Life Insurer’s policy from the moment that decedent applied for the policy.  Moreover, plaintiff alleged that she was linked to Agent by his status as a family member and trusted financial advisor and that Agent knew not only that the policy was intended to ensure plaintiff’s financial well-being in the event of Decedent’s death, but that plaintiff would rely upon Agent’s expertise in preparing a valid application for it.

The Third Department accepted plaintiff’s allegations as true and held that they showed Agent’s affirmative assumption of a duty of care to plaintiff for a specific purpose regardless of whether there was a contractual relationship.   Furthermore, plaintiff’s reliance was the end aim of the transaction and constituted a relationship close enough to privity as to create a duty of care toward her that permitted a negligence claim against Agent and his purported employers.

Plaintiff’s claim of negligent misrepresentation and concealment of material facts and her claim of fraud, however, were properly dismissed.  Plaintiff did not assert that Agent directly vouched for the policy’s validity but only that he delivered the application and policy documents to both decedent and to plaintiff as an assurance that it had been issued upon an accurate application and was valid. The court held that the most that could reasonably be taken from the act of delivery was that an application had been submitted to Life Insurer and that Life Insurer had issued a policy. The policy explicitly contained a two-year contestability clause which plaintiff (herself an attorney) could have discovered had she read the policy.

Plaintiff’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty was timely brought.  The applicable statute of limitations for the breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim at issue was three years and accrued when all elements of the tort could be truthfully alleged including when actual damage had been sustained.  Damages arose when Life Insurer determined that the policy had never been in force and denied plaintiff’s claim.  Because plaintiff’s action was commenced days after Life Insurer’s denial of her claim, her breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim was timely.

But plaintiff’s breach-of-contract claim against Defendants was properly dismissed.   Although plaintiff was a third-party beneficiary of the policy which gave her the same rights as Decedent, Decedent’s own misrepresentations on the application imperiled his purchase of the policy.  Because Decedent could not plausibly have claimed that Defendants breached the agreement as to him, plaintiff’s breach-of-contract claim was properly dismissed.

Vestal v. Pontillo, 018 NY Slip Op 01236 (3d Dep’t 2/22/18)

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