Climbing A Light Pole Is Incidental To Fixing The Light At The Top, Therefore Property Owner Not Liable For Independent Contractor’s Injuries

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

Parking lot lights (pd)On this blog I have occasionally written about the duty owed by landowners to, among others, visitors and trespassers and folks walking along a landowner's sweetgum-spiky-seed-pod-riddled sidewalk. In Pisieczko v. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Appellate Division addressed a similar situation — the duty owed by a landowner to an independent contractor performing work on its property. 

In Pisiaczko, plaintiff was an independent contractor who worked for defendant "doing odd jobs, such as repairing different fixtures, changing lights, and installing tiles." In this capacity, he was hired by defendant to repair lights, which were "affixed to wooden poles" and located in one of defendant's parking lots. Defendant provided no guidance or supervision to plaintiff. Before beginning his work, plaintiff pushed on one of the wooden poles to make sure it was sturdy. When it did not move, he took a ladder, leaned it against the pole, and extended it to approximately two feet below the light fixture. He secured the ladder with straps around the pole. Unfortunately, while plaintiff was on the ladder testing the fixture, the pole broke. Plaintiff jumped off the ladder from about 20 feet to avoid falling into barbed wire. He injured his heel in the process.

Plaintiff sued. He alleged that the pole was rotten inside, which caused it to break. (The parties agreed that the rot was not visible before the pole broke.) Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was not liable for plaintiff's damages because the decision to place the ladder against the pole was incident to the specific work plaintiff was hired to perform.  The trial court agreed and granted the motion. Plaintiff appealed.

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Havanese Day! Statements on duped dog buyer’s blog not defamatory

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

HavaneseIn Roberts v. Mintz, defendant bought what he believed was a "healthy, nine-month old, purebred Havanese," but what he got was a two-year old dog that was not a purebred Havanese, and was suffering from various health problems. Defendant complained and plaintiffs offered to refund his money in exchange for the dog. Defendant refused. He wanted the refund, but he wanted to keep the dog because he had already incurred $800 in veterinary fees and because he had become fond of the dog, which he named Moose.

One month after buying Moose, defendant began posting about his experience with plaintiffs on his blog. As you probably guessed, the posts were not positive. Eventually, plaintiffs sued in connection with six specific statements defendant made on his blog, which, among other things, accused plaintiffs of being members of a "notorious ring of South Jersey dog grifters," alleged that plaintiffs had been convicted of animal cruelty, claimed that plaintiffs' lived in a "run down farmhouse with 6 children," and described plaintiffs as "despicable human beings" who ran a "fraudulent puppy mill." Defendants also posted that they had heard from others who were "unwittingly scammed" by plaintiffs. Individuals who claimed to be plaintiffs responded to some of the posts in the comments sections of the blog, calling defendant a "liar" and a "jerk," and claiming that he "suffered from 'rage syndrome,' a behavioral condition that afflicts canines."

In lieu of answering plaintiffs' complaint, defendant moved for summary judgment, seeking to have the complaint dismissed. He also served plaintiffs with a frivolous litigation letter. Plaintiffs cross moved for summary judgment and also sought an injunction preventing defendant from defaming them. The trial court granted defendant's motion. It held that plaintiffs were barred from suing in connection with several of the statements because the one-year statute of limitations had expired. In doing so, it rejected plaintiff's claim that the statute of limitations should have been tolled because defendant had committed a continuous tort. The trial court found that the remaining statements were "opinions, epithets, and hyperbole," and were therefore "not sufficiently factual to be actionable."

Defendant then moved for sanctions, and the trial court granted the motion. Although it did no award defendant all of the sanctions he sought, it did award him $25,000 — assessed against both plaintiffs and their counsel — because plaintiffs filed their complaint without sufficient evidentiary support and because several claims were barred by the statute of limitations. 

Both sides then appealed — plaintiffs seeking to reverse the trial court's decision dismissing their complaint, and defendant seeking to reverse the trial court's decision to award him less in sanctions than what he requested

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Applebee’s Has No Duty To Warn You That Your Plate Of Smoking, Sizzling Fajitas Is Hot

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In the interest of full disclosure, my family and I are frequent Applebee’s patrons. We have four kids, so casual dining is a staple of our dining out experience and there is an Applebee’s right near our house. We like Applebee’s food a great deal. Although I have never had the fajitas, it is hard to miss them when a waitress walks by with a loud, smoking plate of sizzling meat and vegetables that always inspires my kids to ask “what is that!”

With that confession out of the way, we turn to the recent Appellate Division decision in Jiminez v. Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar. In that case, plaintiff sued Applebee’s after he was injured while dining. Plaintiff, who was eating with his brother, ordered the fajitas and the waitress placed his plate — which plaintiff described as “sizzling,” “real dark,” “smoking,” and “real hot” — right in front of him. According to plaintiff, the waitress did not warn him that the plate was hot, but instead simply said “enjoy your meal.” Then this happened:

After the waitress walked away, [plaintiff’s brother] “reached over and said let’s have prayer.” Plaintiff bowed his head “[c]lose to the table.” Plaintiff said he heard a loud, sizzling noise, followed by “a pop noise,” and then felt a burning sensation in his left eye and on his face.

Plaintiff panicked, knocked his plate onto his lap and caused his prescription eye glasses to fall from his face. Plaintiff said he tried to push away from the table with his right arm. He used his left arm to brush the food from his lap. He soon felt that he had “pulled” something in his right arm. He stopped applying pressure to the table, “let [his] [right] hand go because [he] felt pain,” and “banged” his elbow on the table.

As a result of this incident, plaintiff sued, alleging that he was “injured as a result of defendants’ negligence when he came into contact with a dangerous and hazardous condition, specifically, ‘a plate of hot food.’” After discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that, even if the fajitas were a dangerous or hazardous condition, they were entitled to summary judgment because the condition was open, obvious, and easily understood. The trial court agreed and granted the motion.

The Appellate Division affirmed. It noted that a business owner generally owes its invitees “a duty of reasonable . . . care to provide a safe environment for doing that which is within the scope of the invitation.” This duty requires the business owner to discover and eliminate dangerous conditions, to maintain the premises in safe condition, and to avoid creating unsafe conditions. In Jiminez, unlike most cases, the alleged dangerous condition was a “sizzling fajita platter,” nonetheless the Appellate Division analyzed it under the same general principles.

The Appellate Division held that, notwithstanding the general duty that a business owner owes its invitees, Applebee’s had no duty to warn plaintiff about the dangers associated with the fajitas because the risk was readily foreseeable to plaintiff. Specifically, the Appellate Division held that: the fajitas were “sizzling, smoking and ‘real hot’” when delivered to plaintiff; once delivered, Applebee’s had no control over the fajitas; and plaintiff had the “opportunity and ability to act to protect himself from any danger that it posed, since the danger was open and obvious.” Under these circumstances, the Appellate Division held that “imposition of a duty . . . to warn plaintiff of the danger presented by the sizzling hot platter [was] not required as a matter of fairness and sound policy.”