Recent litigation involving an accident sustained by a PATH train passenger walking through the Jersey City station highlights the legal nuances implicit in personal injury recoveries. The plaintiff here, physician Soma Mandal, was able to successfully obtain a $7.7 million verdict in a lawsuit against the Port Authority, only to have that verdict overturned on appeal. The New Jersey appellate court based its decision to overturn the appeal on an error of law made by the trial court, and which has sweeping implications for personal injury suits brought against common carriers.
Mandal was injured during her commute to NYU Medical Center. While walking down a sloping walkway, Mandal slipped on a tiled floor that was still wet from snow and rain the day before. Apparently, the black mats that the station cleaning service and co-defendant Modern Facilities Services’ had laid down to make station conditions safer did not prevent the fall, and ultimately Mandal obtained a 75% award against Port Authority and a 25% award against Modern Facilities Services.
For some background, a “common carrier” is a legal term of art for buses, planes, trains, and other modes of public transportation the operators of which normally have a heightened duty of care. A duty of care is one of the four factors in a personal injury suit and whether a duty exists and/or the type of duty that exists is purely a question of law that can be decided by the judge. If no such duty exists against the putative defendant than no personal injury action can be maintained.
The duty element of a personal injury lawsuit was the central item at issue in the appeal of the Mandal v. Port Authority decision. On appeal, the court found that the heightened duty of care normally applied to common carriers was not appropriate here because the plaintiff in this case was not actually getting on or off or riding a train at the time the injury occurred. In other words, the legal area in which the Port Authority had a particularly high duty to care for its passengers and ensure that no harm would come to them did not extend to the platform that the plaintiff was walking on when she was injured. Thus, the appellate court found that the lower court had erred by applying the “utmost caution” standard to defendant Port Authority in this case.
Students of law may find it hard not to reminisce on Palsgraf, the seminal personal injury case involving an accident on the Long Island Railroad platform, but there is a major takeaway for laypersons as well; simply being on common carrier property will not create common carrier liability. The outcome is particularly surprising in light of a decision cited by the plaintiff where the court seemed to hold that slippery conditions alone warranted holding the Port Authority to a “higher degree of care.” Yet the court chose to clarify that logic in this case, finding that liability in such cases will depend upon the location and circumstances of the accident.
This Port Authority case illustrates the complexity of the law and why an NJ Slip and Fall Attorney should be contacted as soon a possible after the incident.