PERSONAL INJURY – NEGLIGENCE IN FAILING TO EVICT TENANTS INVOVED IN DRUG ACTIVITY – NEGLIGENCE IN FAILING TO PROVIDE ADEQUATE SECURITY – JURY AWARD OF $518,500 SUSTAINED
Summary: In this premises liabity case, the jury awarded a superintendent $518,500 against the owner of a building who failed to prevent drug activity in the building, leading to the superintendent’s assault. After the Supreme Court dismissed plaintiff’s first cause of action for failure to prove a prima facie case, the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed and reinstated the $518,500 award.
Facts: Plaintiff was the superintendent of the building, located in the Bronx, which was owned by Defendant NAACP and managed by its independent agent. Plaintiff testified that after he became aware of drug activity taking place in two apartments in the building, he repeatedly notified the Defendant’s managing agent and the police. The agents advised him that funds were not available to bring legal action against the occupants of the apartments or to make the necessary repairs. Because of the efforts of Plaintiff and others, one of the apartments was raided by the police; Plaintiff then boarded up the apartment and notified the managing agent. He was thereby approached by a man who offered him $2,500 to open up the apartment. When he refused the offer, the man warned him that “he was going to ‘run into an accident.'” On July 7, 1986, he was attacked by a man with a machete in a hallway of the building. Severe injuries to his hand caused him to be hospitalized.
Upon his release from the hospital, and the resumption of drug activity in that apartment, Plaintiff was attacked again on December 7, 1986, this time by a man wielding a gun and a knife, and sustained a scar on his calf.
Holdings of the Courts Below: Plaintiff alleged that the defendant was negligent in breaching Real Property Law § 231 by failing to bring proceedings to evict occupants of apartments in the building who engaged in criminal activity. He also asserted that defendants were negligent under common law for failing to maintain minimal security precautions on the premises. Plaintiff brought two causes of action, based on the July 7 and December 7 attacks.
At trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. On the first cause of action, the jury awarded the plaintiff $516,000 in damages and his wife $2,500 for loss of services.
The trial court (Supreme Court, Bronx County) granted the defendant’s renewed motion to dismiss the first cause of action for failure to prove a prima facie case. As to the second cause of action, the court ordered a new trail with respect to damages unless the defendant consented to increase the award to plaintiffs to $7,500. The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision on the first cause of action to the Appellate Division, First Department. (The parties did not challenge the trial court’s ruling on the second cause of action.)
Discussion: The First Department reinstated the $518,500 award. It abided by the rule that in order to determine whether a prima facie case has been established, a court must accept the plaintiff’s evidence as true and accord hum the benefit of every favorable inference from that evidence. It held that the jury was reasonable and the evidence was sufficient in establishing the defendant’s liability for the July 7, 1986 attack on the plaintiff. “Since it is undisputed that the landlord was repeatedly informed of ongoing criminal activity in the building and took no action to stop it, it was for the jury to determine whether the landlord’s failure to evict the alleged drug dealers could serve as a predicate for liability for the plaintiff’s injuries.” 599 N.Y.S.2d at 16. Although the plaintiff was required to show that Defendant’s negligence was “a substantial cause” of his injuries, he was not required to show “that the precise manner in which the incident happened, or the extent of his injuries, was foreseeable.” Id. Furthermore, there was uncontroverted evidence of the existence of broken door locks, and of notice provided to the Defendant of their existence. Therefore, there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have concluded that Defendant failed in its duty to maintain the premises in reasonably safe condition.