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Fernandez v. New England Motor Freight, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 1, 2015

WILLIAM FERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW ENGLAND MOTOR FREIGHT, INC. and OTTO DANIEL, Defendants. NEW ENGLAND MOTOR FREIGHT, INC. and OTTO DANIEL, Third-Party Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW YORK CITY TRANSIT AUTHORITY and ALSTOM TRANSPORTATION, INC., Third-Party Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

VALERIE CAPRONI, District Judge.

Plaintiff William Fernandez sued New England Motor Freight, Inc. ("NEMF") and Otto Daniel alleging that they are liable for injuries he suffered unloading freight from a truck owned by NEMF and operated by Daniel. Compl. ¶¶ 6-13, Dkt. 1. The truck was delivering freight to Plaintiff's employer, Third-Party Defendant Alstom Transportation, Inc. ("Alstom"), at a rail yard owned by Third-Party Defendant New York City Transit Authority ("NYCTA"). Third-Party Compl. ¶¶ 5, 11, Dkt. 20. NEMF and Daniel (collectively, "Third-Party Plaintiffs") filed third-party complaints against Alstom and NYCTA for common-law indemnification and contribution. Dkt. 20. NYCTA moved for summary judgment, arguing that it cannot be liable for indemnification or contribution because it owed no duty to Plaintiff or to Third-Party Plaintiffs. Dkt. 75. For the following reasons, NYCTA's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Alstom repairs trains for NYCTA. NYCTA 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 26, 29. William Fernandez was employed by Alstom as a "material handler, " a job that included coordinating inbound or outbound shipments delivered to or from Alstom's work sites. NYCTA 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 1, 2.

The accident in question occurred at the NYCTA Flushing, NY rail yard, a location at which Alstom does work for NYCTA. NYCTA 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 1, 10; Third-Party Plaintiffs' Resp. to 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 29. At the time of the accident, Plaintiff was helping to unload two subway car brake resistors when they fell off the truck's lift gate and hit Plaintiff in the head. Third-Party Plaintiffs' Resp. to 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1. Plaintiff's normal practice when offloading heavy pallets (the brake resistors weighed approximately 1000 pounds) was to request a forklift from NYCTA; he did not follow that practice on this occasion. NYCTA 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 7-9, 14.

Plaintiff sued NEMF and Daniel in state court. Third-Party Plaintiffs removed the action on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, Dkt. 1, and impleaded Alstom and NYCTA asserting claims for indemnification and contribution, Dkt. 20. Third-Party Plaintiffs and Alstom stipulated to a dismissal of all claims against Alstom, Dkt. 68, leaving NYCTA as the sole remaining Third-Party Defendant. Third-Party Plaintiffs' theory is that NYCTA owed a duty of care to them and Plaintiff and that NYCTA's carelessness was the proximate cause of Plaintiff's injury. Third-Party Plaintiffs also claim that NYCTA owed contractual duties to NEMF. NYCTA has moved for summary judgment. Dkt. 75.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Courts "construe the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the movant." Aulicino v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Homeless Servs., 580 F.3d 73, 79-80 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Beyer v. County of Nassau, 524 F.3d 160, 163 (2d Cir. 2008)).

I. Common-Law Indemnification Claim

Third-Party Plaintiffs allege that because NYCTA negligently failed to provide Plaintiff with a forklift to unload the NEMF truck, they are entitled to indemnification from NYCTA. Third-Party Plaintiffs also argue that they are entitled to indemnification from NYCTA because NYCTA had a duty to provide Plaintiff with a "safe environment." Third-Party Compl. ¶¶ 13-15.

A. Indemnification Based on Negligence

Third-Party Plaintiffs have failed to establish that NYCTA owed Plaintiff or Third-Party Plaintiffs any applicable duty. Under New York law, whether a duty exists is a question of law decided by the Court. Pulka v. Edelman, 40 N.Y.2d 781, 782 (1976); see also id. ("In the absence of duty, there is no breach and without a breach there is no liability."). A claim for negligence "must demonstrate the existence of a duty, the breach of which may be considered the proximate cause of the damages suffered by the injured party." Dos Santos v. Terrace Place Realty, Inc., 433 F.Supp.2d 326, 333 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (quoting Becker v. Schwartz, 46 N.Y.2d 401, 410 (1978)). "To establish the existence of a duty under New York law, [t]he injured party must show that a defendant owed not merely a general duty to society but a specific duty to the particular claimant.'" Perkins Eastman Architects, P.C. v. Thor Eng'rs, P.A., 769 F.Supp.2d 322, 328 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (quoting In re Sept. 11 Litig., 280 F.Supp.2d 279, 290 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)).

NEMF argues that, under New York law, NYCTA, as the owner of the rail yard, owed Plaintiff a duty to provide a safe environment and to "safely and properly coordinate and/or conduct the offloading of freight at its rail yard." Third-Party Compl. ¶ 13; NEMF Mem. at 1-2. It is true that New York law imposes a duty "upon an owner or general contractor to provide construction site workers with a safe place to work, " Dos Santos, 433 F.Supp.2d at 333 (quoting Cun-En Lin v. Holy Family Monuments, 18 A.D.3d 800, 801 (2d Dep't 2005)), but an "implicit precondition to this duty is that the party charged with that responsibility have the authority to control the activity bringing about the injury, '" Comes v. N.Y. State Elec. & Gas Corp., 82 N.Y.2d 876, 877 (1993) (quoting Russin v. Picciano & Son, 54 N.Y.2d 311, 317 (1981)).

Here, there is no evidence that Plaintiff was ever under the supervision of NYCTA or that the dangerous condition arose from the actions of NYCTA rather than from Plaintiff's decision to unload extraordinarily heavy equipment without a forklift. Alstom ordered the equipment that NEMF delivered to the rail yard; Alstom was designated as the receiver of the parts destined for the rail yard; and Plaintiff was listed as the recipient on the Bill of Lading ("BOL"). See Rubenstein Decl. Ex. O, Dkt. 79-1. Although NYCTA did provide forklifts upon request when Alstom employees needed them to unload trucks at the rail yard, Third-Party Plaintiffs have adduced no evidence that NYCTA exercised, or had the authority to exercise, supervisory control over Plaintiff or the unloading of shipments to Alstom. "[W]here the alleged defect or dangerous condition arises from the contractor's methods and the owner exercises no supervisory control over the operation, no liability attaches to the owner under the common law...." ...


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