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Dale R. San Marco et al v. Village/Town of Mount Kisco

December 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lippman, Chief Judge:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

This appeal presents the question of whether a prior written notice statute acts as an absolute bar to recovery against a municipality where a plaintiff slipped and fell on black ice that formed on the municipality's property. Since the ice hazard at issue may have been created by the municipality's negligent snow removal efforts, and, if so, the municipality may have known of the hazard, we conclude that Supreme Court properly denied defendant's motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff Dale San Marco slipped and fell in a parking lot owned by defendant Village/Town of Mount Kisco (the Village) while on her way to work on Saturday, February 5, 2005 at approximately 8:15 a.m. At 4:45 a.m. on the previous morning, the Village had treated the parking lot for ice conditions. However, the Village did not employ a work crew on Saturdays and Sundays to monitor the parking lot for dangerous conditions. It is undisputed that in the interim between the Village's last inspection and salting of the lot early on Friday morning and San Marco's fall on Saturday morning, the air temperature had risen above freezing for approximately nineteen hours and then dropped.

As a result of her fall, San Marco suffered a concussion, fractured her sacrum and herniated several cervical discs. Her injuries required a bone graft and surgical installation of a titanium plate affixed to her spine and secured by thirteen screws. In May 2005, San Marco and her husband, suing derivatively, commenced this action, seeking to recover damages for her personal injuries. San Marco alleged that she fell on a patch of black ice that was caused by the melting and refreezing of a pile of snow that the Village had plowed into a row of meters adjacent to the parking spaces. San Marco further alleged both that the Village was negligent in plowing the snow so near the parking spaces and negligent in failing to take measures to remedy any dangerous ice conditions that developed.

In response, the Village asserted that Village Law § 6-628 and Village of Mount Kisco Code § 93-47 shielded it from liability in the absence of prior written notice. Pursuant to Village Law § 6-628, a municipality cannot be liable as a matter of law "unless written notice of the defective, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed condition or of the existence of the snow or ice, relating to the particular place, was actually given to the village clerk" (Village Law § 6-628). The Village consequently established before the motion court that its clerk had not received written notice regarding a defective condition in the parking lot where San Marco fell.

Supreme Court, however, rejected the Village's argument that the action should be dismissed because no one had given written notice of a black ice condition. The court reasoned that the Village's snow removal procedure triggered an exception to the written notice statute, finding a question of fact as to whether the Village might have created the hazardous ice condition. Under Amabile v City of Buffalo (93 NY2d 471 [1999]), a prior written notice statute does not protect a municipality from liability if it can be proven that the "locality created the defect or hazard through an affirmative act of negligence" (id. at 474).

The Appellate Division reversed and granted the Village summary judgment, concluding that this Court's holdings in Yarborough v City of New York (10 NY3d 726 [2008]) and Oboler v City of New York (8 NY3d 888 [2007]) controlled in cases of melting and freezing snow. Yarborough and Oboler, which respectively dealt with hazards caused by a pothole and an uneven manhole cover, held that the "affirmative creation" exception to prior written notice statutes applies only where the action of the municipality "immediately results in the existence of a dangerous condition" (Yarborough, 10 NY3d at 728, quoting Oboler, 8 NY3d at 889). Reasoning that this "immediacy test" extends to snow melting cases, the Second Department found that the Village's action of snow plowing did not amount to "immediate creation" of the hazard that San Marco allegedly encountered (57 AD3d 874, 877 [2d Dept 2008]). Rather, the Court found, "the environmental factors of time and temperature fluctuations . . . caused the allegedly hazardous condition" (id.).

The Appellate Division granted plaintiff leave to appeal. We reverse and deny summary judgment.

Reviewing the public policy rationale for prior written notice statutes, as well as the factual distinctions between each category of case, we conclude that the immediacy requirement for "pothole cases" should not be extended to cases involving hazards related to negligent snow removal. In reaching the conclusion that the Village should not be shielded from liability as a matter of law in the present case, we uphold the general underlying purpose of prior written notice statutes. Although it can be harsh for plaintiffs in many cases, it is sensible that the municipality is exempt from liability for injuries on public property unless the municipality knew of the problem. Prior written notice statutes were designed precisely to release municipalities from the "vexing problem of municipal street and sidewalk liability" (Barry v Niagara Frontier Tr. Sys., 35 NY2d 629, 633 [1974]) when they have no reasonable opportunity to remedy the problem (see e.g. Jagoda v City of Dunkirk, 43 AD2d 795, 796 [4th Dept 1973] ["Notice provisions . . . are intended to insure that a municipality be given reasonable opportunity to cure defective conditions, the existence of which it could not be expected to know absent some sort of positive apprisal"]).

We recognized the importance of actual notice in Doremus v Incorporated Vil. of Lynbrook (18 NY2d 362 [1966]), stating that prior written notice statutes represent "an effort to exempt the villages from liability for holes and breaks of a kind which do not immediately come to the attention of the village officers unless they are given actual notice thereof" (id. at 378). In keeping with this emphasis, we developed in Amabile the exception for the municipality's affirmative creation of the hazardous condition that caused injury.

Then, in Yarborough and Oboler, we held that a municipality could only be liable for its actions that immediately produced a hazardous condition. These holdings merely reinforced the object of prior written notice statutes to protect municipalities from liability for a road construction or repair, recognizing the difficulty in determining, after the passage of time, whether the initial repair was negligent. At the same time, the affirmative creation exception addressed situations where a hazard was foreseeable, insofar as the municipality created it, by, for example, digging an unmarked ditch in a road or neglecting to cover a street drain.

Considering the present facts in light of the underlying purpose of prior written notice statutes, we find these statutes were never intended to and ought not to exempt a municipality from liability as a matter of law where a municipality's negligence in the maintenance of a municipally owned parking facility triggers the foreseeable development of black ice as soon as the temperature shifts. Unlike a pothole, which ordinarily is a product of wear and tear of traffic or long-term melting and freezing on pavement that at one time was safe and served an important purpose, a pile of plowed snow in a parking lot is a cost-saving, pragmatic solution to the problem of an accumulation of snow that presents the foreseeable, indeed known, risk of melting and refreezing.

Moreover, a patch of pavement may gradually and unpredictably deteriorate, making the point at which the efficacy of the initial repair ceases unknown to the municipality. It is therefore understandable that the hazard may escape detection until the municipality receives written notice of the problem. However, in the case of black ice that forms from plowing snow in a municipally owned parking facility, a municipality should require no additional notice of the possible danger arising from its method of snow clearance apart from widely available local temperature data. Indeed, there is evidence that in the case at bar, the Village treated the same parking lot with salt and sand the day before the accident, in order to limit the hazards of black ice. Thus, the determinative factor in this case should be whether the Village's snow removal efforts created the ice condition on which San Marco fell.

We have recognized the problem of negligent snow removal going back to 1948 in Zahn v City of New York (299 NY 581 [1949]), where judgment for the injured plaintiff was affirmed upon similar facts -- that a plaintiff fell on black ice that had accumulated as a result of melting and refreezing of snow that the property owner had shoveled on the sidewalk in front of her home. Although this case involved a private defendant, since that time there have been Appellate Division cases holding that a municipal defendant may be liable for a negligent ice condition without prior written notice. For example, on almost identical facts to the present case, in Smith v County of Orange (51 AD3d 1006 [2d Dept 2008]), the Second Department held that there was a triable issue of fact "regarding whether the ice upon which the plaintiff slipped was formed when snow piles created by the County's snow removal efforts melted and ...

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