October 8, 2013
Kathleen BEDNARK, Plaintiff,
The CITY OF NEW YORK, New York City Transit Authority, Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Heron Real Estate Corp., BP America, Inc. and Accede, Inc., Defendants.
[972 N.Y.S.2d 865] Rheingold, Valet, Rheingold, McCartney & Giuffra, LLP, by Jeremy A. Hellman, Esq., New York City, for plaintiff.
Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, by Julien Baumrin, Esq., Assistant Corporation Counsel, New York City, for defendant City of New York.
Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, by Peter F. Breheny, Esq., Farmingdale, for defendants Heron Real Estate Corp., BP America, Inc., and Accede, Inc.
[972 N.Y.S.2d 866] MICHAEL D. STALLMAN, J.
In this personal injury action, defendant The City of New York (City) moves for summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff's complaint as against it (Motion Seq. No. 003). Defendants Heron Real Estate Corp. (Heron), BP America Inc. (BP), and Accede, Inc. (collectively, the Property Owners) separately move for summary judgment dismissing the action as against them (Motion Seq. No. 002).
Plaintiff alleges that, on June 10, 2008, upon alighting from a bus through the rear doors, she stepped onto a cracked area of sidewalk and fell, abutting a gas station owned by defendants Heron and BP and operated by defendant Accede, on the north side of East 125th Street between Second and Third Avenues, in Manhattan.
" There was a flow of passengers getting off in front of me and behind me. I grabbed onto the right handrail and dropped my bag with my left hand, and then very shortly thereafter stepped on the left foot— stepped down onto the cracked cement with my left foot. Continue?
Q. Yes, please.
[Colloquy omitted] * * *
Q. [W]hat happened next?
A. My foot twisted out, and I collapsed onto the pavement."
(Breheny Affirm., Ex. G [Bednark EBT], at 28-29.)
Plaintiff, in her affidavit, provided photographs taken by her on June 15, 2008, five days after the accident, showing the appearance of the sidewalk where she allegedly fell. (Hellman Affirm., Ex A [Bednark Aff.],
¶¶ 3-6.) Plaintiff also measured the distance from where she allegedly fell to
the nearest bus stop pole. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) According to plaintiff, the
accident site was approximately 55 feet away from a bus stop pole indicating
where buses should pull up to that stop, and indicating a no stopping zone for
vehicles (Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff also reviewed a 2003 Big Apple Map showing
East 125th Street between Second and Third Avenues which had notations
indicating an obstruction protruding from the sidewalk; she noted the place of
her alleged fall on the map. (Id. ¶ 13; see also Hellman Affirm., Ex. H [Big Apple Map].)
The standards for summary judgment are well-settled.
" On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Summary judgment is a drastic remedy, to be granted only where the moving party has tender[ed] sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact, and then only if, upon the moving party's meeting of this burden, the non-moving party fails to establish the existence of material issues of fact which require a trial of the action. The moving party's [f]ailure to make [a] prima facie showing [of entitlement to summary judgment] requires a denial of the motion, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposing papers."
(Vega v. Restani Constr. Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 499, 503, 942 N.Y.S.2d 13, 965 N.E.2d 240  [internal citations and quotation marks omitted].)
The City argues that summary judgment should be granted in its favor because, under the Administrative Code of the City of New York § 7-210, the abutting owners of the property, not the City, had a duty to maintain the sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition. The Property [972 N.Y.S.2d 867] Owners contend that summary judgment should be granted in their favor because of their view that the sidewalk that abutting property owners must maintain under section 7-210 of the Administrative Code does not include bus stops. Both the City and the Property Owners also argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because they neither caused or created the alleged sidewalk defect nor had any prior notice of the alleged sidewalk defect.
Defendants Heron and BP admitted in their Answer that BP leased from Heron a gas station located at 255 East 125th Street a/k/a 2449 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. (Hellman Affirm., Ex. I [Answer], at 1.) Mohammed Shah Alam, the owner and president of defendant Accede, testified at his deposition that he leased the gas station at 255 East 125th Street from BP beginning in May 2006. (Breheny Affirm. Ex. M [Alam EBT], at 15, 19-21.) Therefore, it appears undisputed that the accident site abuts the property of these three entities.
The Property Owners contend that they did not have a duty under Administrative Code § 7-210 to maintain the area of the sidewalk where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell, citing Vucetovic v. Epsom Downs, Inc., 10 N.Y.3d 517, 860 N.Y.S.2d 429, 890 N.E.2d 191  and Garcia-Martinez v. City of New York, 20 Misc.3d 1111[A], 2008 WL 2582616 [Sup.Ct., N.Y. County 2008]. According to the Property Owners, the sidewalk area at issue was part of a designated bus stop, based on the deposition of Tajinder Jassal, the New York City Director of Bus Stop Management. Jassal testified at his deposition that the the bus stop area on the north side of East 125th Street between Second and Third Avenues is 158 feet long, beginning 20 feet west of Second Avenue. (Hellman Affirm., Ex. B [Jassal EBT], at 9.) Plaintiff argues that the area is not part of a bus stop, but rather part of the " sidewalk" for purposes of Administrative Code § 7-210.
" On September 14, 2003, with the passage of § 7-210 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York, the duty to maintain and repair public sidewalks, within the City of New York, and any liability for the failure to do so, was shifted, with certain exceptions, to owners, whose property abuts the sidewalk. Accordingly, owners of nonexempted properties must now keep the sidewalks abutting their properties in a reasonably safe condition, much in the same way they are obligated to maintain their respective premises."
(Early v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 73 A.D.3d 559, 560, 904 N.Y.S.2d 367 [1st
Dept. 2010].) The City Council enacted this local law in order to transfer tort
liability from the City to abutting property owners as a cost-saving measure
reasoning that the law would not only save the City millions of dollars but that
it would also encourage abutting property owners to comply with their
obligations under the Administrative Code, resulting in safer sidewalks. (Local
Law Bill Jacket, Local Law No. 49  of City of N.Y.) Section 7-210 does not
define the term " sidewalk," but " the language of section 7-210 mirrors the
duties and obligations of property owners with regard to sidewalks set forth in
Administrative Code sections 19-152 and 16-123." ' (Vucetovic, 10 N.Y.3d at 521, 860 N.Y.S.2d 429, 890 N.E.2d 191.)
In Vucetovic, the plaintiff stepped into a
tree well and tripped on the cobblestone surrounding the area. (Vucetovic,
10 N.Y.3d at 519, 860 N.Y.S.2d 429, 890 N.E.2d 191.) The plaintiff alleged that
the abutting property owner failed to maintain the sidewalk in a reasonably
safe condition, in violation of Administrative Code [972 N.Y.S.2d 868] § 7-210.
The Court of Appeals held that a tree well is not part of the sidewalk for
purposes of section 7-210 of the Administrative Code. (Id. at 518-519, 860 N.Y.S.2d 429, 890 N.E.2d 191.) The Court stated,
" we are guided by the principle that legislative enactments in derogation of common law, and especially those creating liability where none previously existed,' must be strictly construed....If the City Council desired to shift liability for accidents involving tree wells exclusively to abutting landowners in derogation of the common law, it needed to use specific and clear language to accomplish this goal."
(Id. at 522, 860 N.Y.S.2d 429, 890 N.E.2d 191.)
Unlike the plaintiff in Vucetovic,
plaintiff in this case did not trip and fall in a tree well, which is installed
and embedded in a sidewalk. The Property Owners point out that, at common law,
" [t]he City of New York ... is responsible for the maintenance of bus stops
within the City of New York, including the roads, curbs, and sidewalks
attendant thereto." (Shaller v. City of New York, 41 A.D.3d 697, 698, 839 N.Y.S.2d 766 [2d Dept. 2007] [finding plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action against the New York City Transit Authority for failure to maintain the roadway adjacent to the bus stop].) The issue presented is whether the City Council desired to shift liability for accidents within bus stops and " sidewalks attendant thereto" exclusively to abutting landowners in derogation of the common law.
Since Vucetovic, few cases have addressed whether a property owner has a duty under section 7-210 to maintain the sidewalk area at or near a bus stop, or within a bus shelter. In Smith v. 125th Street Gateway Ventures, LLC, 75 A.D.3d 425, 903 N.Y.S.2d 231 [1 Dept. 2010], the Appellate Division, First Department held that " a City sign or signpost is not part of the ‘ sidewalk’ for purposes of section 7-210 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York." Thus, a City signpost for a bus stop would therefore not be a part of the sidewalk, for purposes of Administrative Code § 7-210. In Phillips v. Atlantic-Hudson, Inc., 105 A.D.3d 639, 963 N.Y.S.2d 582 [1st Dept. 2013], the Appellate Division, First Department ruled that the abutting property owners had no duty under Administrative Code § 7-210 to clear snow and ice from a designated bus stop area where plaintiff allegedly slipped and fell. In Garcia-Martinez, 20 Misc.3d 1111[A], Justice Donna Mills ruled that " [Administrative Code] § 7-210 does not impose the duty upon abutting landowners the responsibility for maintenance of snow and ice at a bus stop or bus shelter."
However, none of these cases define bus stop, and they provide little guidance in this case. In Phillips and in Garcia-Maritnez, the plaintiffs allegedly slipped and fell due to snow and ice at a bus stop.
The City's responsibility to remove snow and ice is specifically addressed in the Administrative Code. Section 16-124.1(b) of the Administrative Code requires the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation to submit snow plowing and removal plans for each borough annually to the City Council, and the plans must address plowing and/or removal of snow and ice adjacent to bus stops, among other areas. Section 16-124.1(a)(2) of the Administrative Code defines bus stop as " a location that is not a bus shelter, designated by signage for New York city transit authority [sic] vehicles to pick up or discharge passengers, which location includes five feet of the sidewalk and the gutter immediately adjacent to the curb for the portion of such curb." In contrast, there is no provision similar to Administrative Code § 16-124.1(a)(2) that deals with the City's [972 N.Y.S.2d 869] responsibility for repairing structural sidewalk defects around bus stops, signs or shelters.
Assuming, only for the sake of argument, that the definition of " bus stop" under Administrative Code § 16-124.1(a)(2) should apply here, it is undisputed that plaintiff did not trip and fall within five feet of a bus stop sign. According to plaintiff, she fell approximately 55 feet away from the nearest bus stop pole. (Bednark Aff.
¶ 8.) Plaintiff claims that the bus that typically pulls up to this bus stop is
" always 40 feet long." (Id. ¶ 11). If a bus pulled up to and stopped at
the bus stop sign, plaintiff herself concludes that " the rear doors will open
far from the defect." (Id. ¶ 12.)
Contrary to the Property Owners' contention, Jassal's testimony about the width and length of the bus stop area did not establish that the sidewalk area where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell should be considered as within a bus stop. When asked what he meant by " width of the bus stop," Jassal testified that he was referring to the bus lane on the roadway. (Jassal EBT, at 40.) Therefore, the distance he testified to at his deposition is not relevant to the issue of whether the sidewalk area where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell should be, for the purposes of Administrative Code § 7-210, considered part of the bus stop under the City's responsibility.
Plaintiff did not trip and fall because of a structure installed in the sidewalk or because of snow or ice. On the date of plaintiff's alleged trip and fall, there apparently was no bus stop sign in the area where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell. Plaintiff did not trip and fall on a sidewalk flag upon which a bus shelter sits.
Moreover, this case does not concern a pre-existing
structural change made by the City or another entity to the sidewalk. This case
does not concern any hardware or structure installed in the sidewalk akin to
those objects that have traditionally triggered application of the special use
doctrine. (See e.g. Weiskopf v. City of New York, 5 A.D.3d 202, 203, 773 N.Y.S.2d 389 [1st Dept. 2004]; Petty v. Dumont, 77 A.D.3d 466, 468, 910 N.Y.S.2d 46 [1st Dept. 2010].)
At issue here is responsibility for repair of a broken sidewalk unrelated to any structure installed in the sidewalk. To adopt the Property Owners' view would be contrary to the expressed intention of the City Council in enacting section 7-210 of the Administrative Code. Moreover, it would expand the Vucetovic exception beyond that intended by the Court of Appeals, causing the exception to swallow the rule. It would create uncertainty for the City, abutting property owners, and injured pedestrians in determining what entity is responsible for maintaining a sidewalk, and which portion of the sidewalk must be maintained by which entity.
Maintaining the sidewalk area at issue in a reasonably safe condition would not have interfered with any City structure sitting on, or installed in, a sidewalk flag. [972 N.Y.S.2d 870] Therefore, on June 10, 2008, the area where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell was not " within a designated public bus stop," (Breheny Affirm. ¶ 5) and thus was not under the City's responsibility to maintain. Accordingly, the abutting Property Owners had the responsibility for maintaining the subject sidewalk area on the accident date, June 10, 2008. The City had no duty to maintain the sidewalk area where plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell.
Therefore, the City's motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint as against it is granted. The Court need not reach the City's additional ground for summary judgment, lack of prior written notice. The cross claims against the City are dismissed.
Defendants " as the owners of property abutting the
public sidewalk, may be held liable in negligence for injuries resulting from
sidewalk defects." (Sehnert v. New York City Tr. Auth., 95 A.D.3d 463, 464, 942 N.Y.S.2d 871 [1st Dept. 2012] [citing section 7-210 of the Administrative Code].) " [S]ection
7-210 does not impose strict liability upon the property owner, and the injured
party has the obligation to prove the elements of negligence to demonstrate
that an owner is liable." (Khaimova v. City of New York, 95 A.D.3d 1280,
1281-1282, 945 N.Y.S.2d 710 [2d Dept. 2012].) Therefore, on a motion for
summary judgment dismissing a cause of action pursuant to section 7-210, " a
property owner has the initial burden of demonstrating that it neither created
the defective condition nor had actual or constructive notice of its existence
for a sufficient length of time to discover and remedy it." (Garcia v. City of New York, 99 A.D.3d 491, 492, 952 N.Y.S.2d 133 [1st Dept. 2012].)
Questions of fact exist as to whether the Property Owners had actual notice of the sidewalk condition. Alam testified at his deposition on September 27, 2010 that he visited and inspected the premises every day for two years prior to plaintiff's alleged accident, and he never saw the condition that plaintiff claims caused her to trip and fall. (Alam EBT, at 92-95.) However, at Alam's deposition on April 25, 2012, he was shown photographs taken shortly after the accident, which clearly show the defect. (Hellman Affirm., Ex. D [Alam 4/25/12 EBT, at 14].) Alam
was asked, " How long had the sidewalk appeared in the condition depicted in
Defendants' Exhibit C?" (Id.) Alam testified as follows:
" A. I don't know. Since I take over in 2006, I see like this.
Q. Did you ever complain to the landlord about the condition of the broken sidewalk?
Q. But it's been there since at least 2006, fair statement?
A. Yeah, before I take over it was there like this."
(Id. at 15.)
Thus, issues of fact exist as to whether Alam had actual notice of the sidewalk condition.
Questions of fact also arise as to whether the Property Owners had constructive notice of the sidewalk condition. " Constructive notice may only be imposed where a defect is visible and apparent and has existed for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit [defendants] to discover and remedy it." [972 N.Y.S.2d 871]
(Alexander v. New York City Tr., 34 A.D.3d 312, 313, 824 N.Y.S.2d 262 [1st Dept. 2006] [internal quotation marks omitted].)
The photographs, included in plaintiff's affidavit, taken five days after the accident, suggest a condition that is neither transitory nor recent in origin. (Bednark Aff. ¶¶ 4-6.) The Court notes that the plaintiff submits a Big Apple Map from 2003. (Hellman Affirm., Ex. H.) Symbols on the map along the north side of East 125th Street, near the corner of Second Avenue, appear to correspond to raised or uneven portions of sidewalk and possibly an obstruction protruding from the sidewalk. Plaintiff does not claim that the Big Apple Map was ever served on the Property Owners. It appears that plaintiff submitted the map to show that the City had been given notice via the 2003 notations of sidewalk defects and that the sidewalk condition at issue might have existed since 2003. The Court does not opine on the admissibility of the Big Apple Map at trial where there will be no issue of prior written notice to the City because the City is no longer a party.
Accordingly, it is hereby
ORDERED that the defendant City of New York's motion for summary judgment (Seq. No. 003) is granted and the complaint is dismissed in its entirety as against said defendant, with costs and disbursements to said defendant as taxed by the Clerk of the Court, and all cross claims against this defendant are dismissed, and the Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly in favor of said defendant; and it is further
ORDERED that defendants Heron Real Estate Corp., BP America, Inc., and Accede, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment (Seq. No. 002) is denied; and it is further
ORDERED that the action is severed and continued against the remaining defendants.