In a decision limited to the facts of the case, the Court of Appeals reversed a robbery conviction because the People failed to sufficiently authenticate an internet image purportedly of defendant holding gun that was “similar” to the one he used in the robbery.

The photograph had been printed out by a police detective from the website “BlackPlanet.com”.  The photograph had been posted to a profile page several months before the robbery and showed an individual holding some cash and a gun.  The detective had found the photograph by searching defendant’s surname “Price” and, after scrolling through several pages of results containing approximately 50 internet profiles whose usernames incorporated the term “Price” into them, saw a public profile that contained several photographs of defendant with the username “Price_OneofKind.”  The public profile page contained no reference to defendant’s full name.  Although the detective testified that the profile page listed the purported user’s age and hometown, the detective did not testify as to whether any of that information matched defendant’s information, and none of the pages containing this information were introduced to connect defendant to the specific user of this website.

The robbery occurred while the victim was standing outside a milk delivery truck conducting milk deliveries with the driver who was inside the truck.  The delivery truck driver testified that he noticed that someone holding a gun about a foot away from the chest of the victim and observed that the victim exchanged words with the gunman and threw a handful of cash from his pocket to the ground.  The driver then saw the gunman’s accomplice gather the money and the two robbers flee. The truck driver did not see the gunman’s face and was unable to identify defendant at trial as either of the perpetrators.

The People then made an offer of proof regarding the print-out of the photograph from the internet, to wit, that the victim thought that the gun on the photograph was similar to the gun that the robber had pointed at him and the detective thought that the individual in the photograph looked like defendant.  The trial court admitted the photograph into evidence.

The victim testified to the circumstances of the robbery, and he identified defendant as the gunman. The victim described the firearm used in the robbery as a 9-millimeter automatic with a silver rectangular feature on the top of the barrel, but the victim admitted that he had no prior familiarity with firearms. When shown the gun in the bottom portion of the internet photograph, the victim testified that the gun looked “similar” to the gun used in the robbery, but he could not identify the gun in the photograph as the one held by the robber.

The detective then testified that the individual in the photograph holding the handgun “look[ed] like” defendant. The detective explained that she had printed the photograph from the internet website, and she asserted that the printout was a true and accurate depiction of the photograph she observed on the website. But the detective did not know who took the photograph, when it was taken, where it was taken, or under what circumstances it was taken. Nor did she know whether the photograph had been altered or was a genuine depiction of that which it appeared to depict.

During summations, the People urged the jury to conclude that the photograph was taken from an internet profile page belonging to defendant, and emphasized that the victim “recognized” the gun depicted in the photograph as the one held by the gunman. Following deliberations, the jury found defendant guilty of the counts of robbery asserted against him.

Upon defendant’s appeal, the Second Department affirmed the judgment of conviction (127 AD3d 995, 996 (2d Dept 2015)), holding that the People laid a proper foundation for admission of the photograph, that the photo was relevant to the issue of the defendant’s identity as the gunman, and the photo’s probative value outweighed any prejudicial effect”. The Court of Appeals granted defendant leave to appeal.

All six judges of the Court of Appeals voted to reverse the conviction and ordered a new trial, but they split four to two on the rationale.  Judge Stein writing for the majority (which included Judges DiFiore, Fahey, and Wilson) recited black-letter-law principals of authenticating photographs as evidence and pronounced that the People had failed to authenticate the photograph, but then (in footnote 3) limited the holding to the facts of this case because the Court was not prepared to enunciate a general test of admissibility of photographs obtained from social media websites:

In our view, it is more prudent to proceed with caution in a new and unsettled area of law such as this. We prefer to allow the law to develop with input from the courts below and with a better understanding of the numerous factual variations that will undoubtedly be presented to the trial courts. Because we necessarily decide each case based on the facts presented therein, it would be premature to decide whether the People’s proffer would have been sufficient had the prosecution, hypothetically, established that the website was controlled by defendant. At this time, it is sufficient and appropriate for us to hold that, based on the proffer actually made, the photograph was not admissible.

In her concurring opinion which was joined by Judge Garcia, Judge Rivera chided the majority for failing to address head on the question of how to authenticate social media images – an evidentiary issue of growing concern given the proliferation and ubiquitousness of social media:

Contrary to the majority’s claim, when we decide an open question presented on appeal we do not act in haste (majority op at 10 n 3). Rather, we pronounce the law by which we reason an outcome. Given the pervasive use of social media, there is nothing premature about determining how law enforcement and prosecutors may use evidence obtained online

Judge Rivera states that the People had to satisfy two levels of authentication: (1) the print out was an accurate representation of the web page; and (2) that the page was defendant’s, meaning he had dominion and control over the page allowing him to post on it.  In her view, the People proved, through the detective’s testimony, that the printout was an accurate representation of the digital image viewed on the website. But the People failed to establish that the web page was defendant’s, either by direct or circumstantial evidence or with proof establishing reasonable inferential linkages that ordinarily supply foundational prerequisites.  The “tie-in effort” between the testimony relied on by the People and the purpose for which the printout was submitted was too tenuous and amorphous. In other words, the People did not submit proof by which a reasonable jury could conclude that the printout was an accurate representation of defendant’s profile page.   Judge Rivera therefore agreed with the majority’s conclusion that authentication could not be accomplished solely by proof that defendant’s surname and picture appears on the profile page.

Judge Rivera criticized the People for failing in their proffer to present the personal information posted on the web page which might have established the necessary link to defendant.  Other evidence arguably addressed the authentication of the web page, such as proof that the defendant posted or adopted the photograph, or knew of the photograph and allowed it to remain on the profile page without objection, but given the deficiency of the proof actually submitted, Judge Rivera agreed with the majority that the Court need not consider whether proof that the web page belonged to defendant could also establish that the image depicted was genuine.  Thus, since the People did not link defendant to the web page where the image was found, there was no need to consider on this appeal the requirement that there had been no tampering with the proffered evidence. And given the lack of adequate evidence connecting defendant to the web page, the Court had no reason to address the sufficiency of the victim’s identification of the gun.

People v Price, 2017 NY Slip Op 05174, CtApp 6-27-17

Queens resident had no long-arm jurisdiction in New York over a Virginia hotel for slip and fall, notwithstanding plaintiff’s having made the hotel reservation via the internet. 

A Queens, New York resident commenced suit in Queens County Supreme Court alleging that he was injured in a shower while he was a guest at a hotel in Virginia known as Homewood Suites by Hilton.  Plaintiff sued the management company Brantley Enterprises, Inc. (which did business under the assumed name of Brantley Hotel Group) and the hotel “Homewood Suites by Hilton”.  Plaintiff had made the hotel reservation via the internet, and premised jurisdiction over defendants on that fact.  The motion term judge granted defendants’ pre-answer motion to dismiss, and the Appellate Division Second Department affirmed.

In support of defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of long-arm jurisdiction, defendants asserted that

  • Defendant Brantley Enterprises, Inc., doing business under the name of co-defendant Brantley Hotel Group, was the manager of co-defendant hotel “Homewood Suites by Hilton”.
  • The management company Brantley Enterprises, Inc., was a Virginia corporation with its principal office in Virginia; it conducted no business and maintained no offices outside Virginia; and it was not affiliated with any New York hotels.
  • The subject hotel was owned by nonparty Suite Venture Associates, LLC, which likewise was a Virginia limited liability company with its principal office in Virginia and which likewise conducted no business and maintained no offices outside Virginia and was not affiliated with any New York hotels.

Plaintiff countered that

  • There were other, separate hotels operating in New York under the licensed or franchised name Homewood Suites by Hilton, and
  • Defendants were involved in maintaining or operating a website that permitted consumers in New York to make reservations at the subject hotel in Virginia.

The Second Department held that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that defendants purposefully availed themselves of the privilege of conducting business in New York.  Plaintiff also failed to demonstrate any substantial relationship between the causes of action asserted in the complaint and any alleged transaction of business through the website that plaintiff used to make his reservation.  Plaintiff also failed to make a prima facie showing that personal jurisdiction existed based on ownership, use, or possession of any real property within New York State.

Lastly, plaintiff failed to make enough of a showing of jurisdiction to stay defendants’ motion to permit discovery on the issue of jurisdiction.  Because plaintiff alleged no facts that would support jurisdiction, plaintiff failed to show how further discovery might lead to evidence showing that personal jurisdiction existed.

NB: Plaintiff apparently did not sue the franchisor of “Homewood Suites by Hilton”.

Leuthner v Homewood Suites by Hilton, 2017 NY Slip Op 05212, 2nd Dept 6-28-17.

Plaintiff stated a valid legal-malpractice cause of action against his former plaintiff’s-attorneys where the attorneys had failed to refresh the recollection of the sole eye witness with the police accident report before the witness was deposed. After the witness’s misdescription of the hit-and-run vehicle, plaintiff lost his personal-injury action.

Plaintiff stated a valid legal-malpractice cause of action against his former plaintiff’s-attorneys where the attorneys had failed to refresh the recollection of the sole eye witness with the police accident report before the witness was deposed. After the witness’s misdescription of the hit-and-run vehicle, plaintiff lost his personal-injury action. 

Reversing Supreme Court, the First Department stated that plaintiff stated a valid cause of action for legal malpractice against his former law firm’s motion.  The law firm had formerly represented plaintiff in the latter’s personal-injury lawsuit arising out of a hit-and-run accident.  Supreme Court had granted the law firm’s motion to dismiss and the First Department reversed.

Plaintiff had been struck by a garbage truck that had fled the scene.  The defendant-driver in the underlying personal injury action had been driving a green garbage truck with a flat front and had admitted to a route that would have placed him in at the scene on the day and at the time of the accident.  The police report regarding the accident showed that the sole eye witness had called the police shortly after the accident and had described the hit-and-run vehicle as a green garbage truck with a flat front.

The eye witness was deposed two years after the accident and testified that that the garbage truck he remembered fleeing the scene had a round front, not a flat front.  Plaintiff lost his personal-injury suit.

Plaintiff alleged in the subject malpractice action that defendant law firm had failed to refresh the recollection of the sole eyewitness before the deposition about the appearance of the truck, which led to erroneous testimony by the witness and which but for that negligence had caused the loss of plaintiff’s personal-injury case.

The First Department held that these allegations were sufficient to survive a CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) motion to dismiss, as nothing in the record conclusively established a defense as a matter of law.

The First Department also granted plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint stating that plaintiff’s proposed amendments (without elucidation as to what they were), stating that the amendments were not “patently devoid of merit” and would not prejudice or surprise defendants.

Caso v Miranda Sambursky Sloane Sklarin Ver Veniotis LLP, 2017 NY Slip Op 03607, 1st Dept 5-4-17.

Building owner’s status as additional insured on lessee’s policy did not entitle building owner to defense and indemnification by lessee’s insurer where slip and fall occurred in parking lot and lessee did not lease and was not required to maintain parking lot. 

The Second Department affirmed Supreme Court’s ruling that a lessee’s insurer had no duty to defend and indemnify a building owner in an underlying slip-and-fall accident that had occurred in the building’s parking lot.  In the underlying action, the underlying plaintiff was an employee of a non-party tenant L who leased part of the building from underlying-defendant Building Owner.  Tenant L’s lease stated that the parking lot was a common area and that Building Owner was responsible for its maintenance including snow removal.  Another tenant U [Tenant U] and Building Owner were owned by the same principals.  The underlying plaintiff alleged that he slipped and fell on black ice in the parking lot and sued Building Owner and Tenant U in the underlying action.

At the time of the accident, Building Owner and Tenant U had a commercial liability insurance policy in effect with Citizens Insurance [Building Owner’s Insurer], who was also a plaintiff in the DJ action.  Tenant L had a commercial liability insurance policy in effect with defendant Valley Forge Insurance [Tenant L’s Insurer].  Tenant L’s insurance policy contained an endorsement providing coverage for Building Owner as an additional insured for “liability arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of that part of the premises leased to [Tenant L] and shown in the Schedule” (emphasis supplied). The “Schedule” stated that Tenant L had leased “Unit 2” of the building and made no reference to the parking lot.  Building Owner tendered to Tenant L’s Insurer its claim for a defense and indemnification in the underlying action as an additional insured, but Tenant L’s Insurer denied Building Owner’s tender on the ground that the potential liability did not arise out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of the part of the premises leased to Tenant L.  Tenant L’s Insurer argued that, according to the lease, the parking lot was a common area outside of the leased premises, and that Building Owner was responsible for snow and ice removal from the parking lot.  Building Owner and its insurer Citizens Insurance then commenced the subject DJ action against Tenant L’s Insurer seeking, among other things, a declaration that Tenant L’s Insurer was obligated to defend and indemnify Building Owner and Tenant U in the underlying action. Tenant L’s Insurer moved for summary judgment, which Supreme Court granted.  Building Owner and its insurer appealed.

First, the Second Department made short shrift of plaintiffs’ contention that the motion for summary judgment by Tenant L’s Insurer was premature, stating that plaintiffs failed to offer an evidentiary basis to suggest that discovery might lead to relevant evidence.

Second, moving to the merits, the Second Department cited the following points of black letter law:

  • An insurer’s duty to defend is exceedingly broad.
  • An additional insured is entitled to the same coverage as if it were a named insured.
  • The insurer is required to defend the entire action if any of the claims against an insured arguably arise from covered events.
  • “Arising out of” requires only that there be some causal relationship between the injury and the risk for which coverage is provided.
  • An insurer does not wish to be liable for losses arising from risks associated with a premises for which the insurer has not evaluated the risk and received a premium.
  • Unambiguous provisions of an insurance contract must be given their plain and ordinary meaning and the interpretation of policy language is a question of law for the courts.

The Second Department then held that Tenant L’s Insurer established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law:

  • The additional-insured endorsement unambiguously provided that Building Owner was an additional insured for liability “arising out of” the “ownership, maintenance or use” of the “premises leased” to Tenant L.
  • Tenant L leased only a portion of the building from Building Owner, not the parking lot where the accident occurred.
  • Tenant L had no duty to maintain the parking lot.
  • There was therefore no causal relationship between the injury and the risk for which coverage was provided, so the underlying plaintiff’s injury was not a bargained-for risk.
  • In opposition, plaintiffs failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Building Owner was an additional insured with regard to the accident, which occurred outside of the leased premises

The Second Department therefore remitted to Supreme Court for entry of a judgment declaring that Tenant L’s Insurer was not obligated to defend and indemnify Building Owner or Tenant U in the underlying action.

 Atlantic Ave. Sixteen AD, Inc. v Valley Forge Ins. Co., 2017 NY Slip Op 04243, 2nd Dept 5-31-17

Question of fact defeated defendant metal-concert venue’s motion for summary judgment on the ground of primary assumption of risk regarding plaintiff’s injury from moshing. 

Plaintiff was a first-time attendee at a general-admission “metal” (a/k/a heavy metal) concert at defendant’s concert hall.  Plaintiff alleged he was pushed from behind in the mosh pit and was hit in the eye as he was attempting to exit the mosh pit.

Per Wikipedia, moshing or slamdancing is a style of dance in which participants push or slam into each other typically performed to “aggressive” live music. Moshing usually happens in an area called the “pit” (sometimes called a “mosh pit”) near the stage. It is intended to be energetic and full of body contact.

Defendant’s general manager testified at his deposition that there were two state-licensed security guards on duty that evening; the show was almost sold out; and moshing would be stopped if and when it became unsafe and affected bystanders.

Defendant moved for summary judgment vis-à-vis plaintiff’s negligence causes of action, on the grounds that (a) plaintiff had assumed the risk (primary assumption of risk) or alternatively (b) that an unforeseen and sudden criminal act of an uncontrollable third party caused the incident and defendant had taken adequate security measures.

The Second Department declined to grant defendant summary judgment on the first ground (the doctrine of primary assumption of risk), finding questions of fact.  Primary assumption of risk is a complete defense and applies when a consenting participant in a qualified activity is aware of the risks, has an appreciation of the nature of the risks, and voluntarily assumes the risks.  A person who chooses to engage in such an activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the activity generally and flow from such participation,  The duty owed in these situations is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be.  The doctrine has generally been restricted to particular athletic and recreative activities in recognition that such pursuits have enormous social value even while they may involve significantly heightened risks and are, therefore, worthy of insulation from a breach of duty claim.

[NB: Under secondary assumption of risk, assumption of the risk is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibilities of the parties.  NY PJI 2:55.]

Without reaching the question of whether attending a metal music concert where “moshing” takes place is a qualified activity under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the Second Department held that defendant failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether it met its duty to exercise care to make the conditions at the subject venue as safe as they appeared to be and whether it unreasonably increased the usual risks inherent in the activity of concert going.  Defendant also failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury, whether the plaintiff’s alleged injuries were foreseeable, and whether defendant provided adequate security measures and, if not, whether its failure was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s alleged injuries.   Nevo v Knitting Factory Brooklyn, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 03186, 2nd Dept 4-26-17

Next Page »