Homeowner not liable for sweetgum spiky seed pod slip and fall

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Sweetgum treeIn the past, I have written about whether property owners can be liable for slip-and-fall accidents caused by ice and snow on their sidewalks. (Click here, here, and here for examples.) This is the first time I will address the related topic of whether property owners can be liable for accidents caused by "spiky seed pods" that fall from sweetgum trees on their property. Turns out that the source of the slippery sidewalk does not change the law too much for residential property owners.

In Neilson v. Dunn, plaintiff was injured when she slipped on spiky seed pods that fell from a sweetgum tree on defendant's property onto an adjacent sidewalk. The tree had been on defendant's property since she and her husband bought it, and plaintiff knew that there were seed pods on the sidewalk when she began her walk. Defendant also "employ[ed] a lawn maintenance contractor whose services include fall and spring clean ups." The most recent clean up occurred two month's prior to plaintiff's accident.

After plaintiff sued, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that she could not be liable for plaintiff's injuries because she had neither created nor exacerbated a dangerous condition on the sidewalk. She argued that the "seed pod accumulation" was a natural condition over which she had no control, and that she acted reasonably in retaining a lawn maintenance service to "periodically clean up any debris, [including the seed pods,] on her lawn and sidewalk." Plaintiff countered that defendant had a duty to ensure that her property was spiky seed pod free and that her failure to do so created a hazardous condition.

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Of Parking Spots and Snow Blowers

Snow blower (pd)One of the things I like about the law, and litigation in particular, is the "just when you think you've seen it all . . . " aspect of it. In a recent decision, Sevinc v. Fulton House, the Appellate Division resolved a dispute that reminds us that we have not seen it all, and probably never will. At its core, the case was about the alleged breach of a contract between plaintiff and defendant. What made it interesting was the subject matter of the alleged breach — plaintiff accused defendant, a residential co-op corporation, of improperly appropriating a portion of his parking space and using it to store a snow blower.

In Sevinc, plaintiff purchased both a unit in the co-op and a parking space in the co-op's parking lot. The lease for the parking space did not describe the space's size, shape, or dimensions, but the size and shape were depicted on the architectural plans that the co-op included in its Public Offering Statement. There was no standard sizes for the parking spaces in the co-op's lot, and some spaces, including plaintiff's space, were larger than others because of where they were situated in the irregularly shaped lot. The size of his space was important to plaintiff because he was a limousine driver and needed extra room to park his Lincoln Town Car.

For almost two years, plaintiff parked in his space without incident. One day in the spring of 2011, however, he pulled in and found that a "metal box" had been placed in the left front corner of his space. A few days later, he saw the building's superintendent installing metal strips to hold the box in place. The superintendent told plaintiff that the co-op was relocating a snow blower to the front of his space and that the metal box would be used to store gas cans for the snowblower. Shortly thereafter, the co-op had white and yellow lines painted on the left side of his space, "all the way from the rear of his space to the front, where the snow blower and gas can container were now located." The newly-configured space was ten-feet wide, the same size as other spaces in the lot but one-third smaller than plaintiff's original space. Plaintiff's car still fit in the space, but pulling in and out was more difficult. 

 

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“Send me dead flowers to my wedding, and I won’t forget to put roses on your grave”

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I don't handle any family law cases, mostly because I do not think I could deal with the emotional issues that are often involved in them. But every now and again a family law decision piques my interest. The recent unpublished Appellate Division decision in Taffaro v. Taffaro was one of those cases. In that case, plaintiff was estranged from his half-sister after a dispute over their mother's estate. After the dispute, he began "attaching paper items" to her gravestone, "frequently directed at [his half sister] and referencing the dispute." When some of these items were removed, plaintiff assumed his half-sister did it, so he pursued criminal charges against her and, when these proved unsuccessful, sued her for conversion, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The court dismissed the invasion of privacy and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress counts on statute of limitations grounds. Even assuming that defendant took the items from the gravestone, which there was no evidence to support, they were taken more than two years before plaintiff sued and plaintiff's claims were thus untimely. The trial court then held a bench trial on the conversion claim and eventually dismissed it as well, holding that plaintiff had abandoned the items. Plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed. It held that conversion is the "unauthorized assumption and exercise of the right of ownership over goods or personal chattels belonging to another . . . ." But, abandonment, which is the relinquishment of "all right, title, claim and possession" of property "with the intention of not reclaiming it," is a complete defense to conversion. In Taffaro, the Appellate Division held that the "necessary overt act" demonstrating abandonment occurred when plaintiff placed the items at his mother's grave. The Appellate Division held that the "ephemeral nature of the cards and decorative items, which were made of paper and left outside" demonstrated plaintiff's "intent to abandon." And, the Appellate Division noted that the purpose of the items was to harass defendant, not honor the memory of plaintiff's mother. Therefore, for all of these reasons, the court held that plaintiff had abandoned the items and could not maintain a cause of action for conversion.

[Fun little fact about the title of this post, which obviously is a portion of the lyrics from one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs, "Dead Flowers." My friend and I went to see Steve Earle at Tradewinds in 1998 when he was touring in support of his El Corazon album. Great show. But then, for the encore, he came walking out with Bruce Springsteen. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my friend and I went to the show mostly because we were big Steve Earle fans, but partly because of the chance that Bruce might show up. Lucky for us, he did, and they played a couple of Stones songs, including Dead Flowers. They also played Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" for Carl Perkins who had died a few days before the show. Anyway, click here for the full audio from the encore.]

Appellate Division to Foreclosing Lenders: “Do Less” Because If You Do More You Might Make Yourself Liable For Damages

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."

I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.

In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.

 

 

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