Case of the Day – Friday, January 6, 2017

TRIP, STUMBLE AND FALL

coffeespill140410Mrs. Taubenfeld should have listened to the Mamas and Papas … they predicted that this might happen to her. It seems Mrs. T was walking past a Starbucks when she stepped into one of those tree wells cut into the sidewalk. She fell over an exposed tree root and hit the ground. She immediately hobbled off to her lawyer’s office. A lawsuit against Starbucks and the strip mall owner soon followed.

She argued that the lease between the strip mall owner and Starbucks required the mall owner to maintain the sidewalk. The Court disagreed, saying that the lease didn’t matter, because a contract between parties could not create a duty to the public where one didn’t otherwise exist.

Tree well – is it a threat or simply a menace?

Tree well – is it a threat or simply a menace?

And no such duty existed here. A village ordinance required that property owners and lessees keep their sidewalks clear of obstructions, but that law didn’t create a right for a private person to sue. If Starbucks had failed to keep up the sidewalk, it might have to answer to the city government, but not to Mrs. Taubenfeld.

Statutes commonly make people or entities liable to the government (in the form of fines or penalties) for noncompliance. Usually, where the obligation is to clear natural problems, such as snowfall, high grass or exposed tree roots – conditions which the owner did not create ­– the statutes do not give general public the right to sue for damages arising from noncompliance.

Taubenfeld v. Starbucks Corp., 48 A.D.3d 310, 851 N.Y.S.2d 512 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., Feb. 21, 2008). Florence Taubenfeld fell over a tree root. The root was growing in a tree well cut into a public sidewalk in front of premises owned by Park Plaza and leased to Starbucks. Faster than you can say sugar-free hazelnut latte made with nonfat milk, Mrs. Taubenfeld sued, claiming negligence. The trial court granted Park Plaza’s motion for summary judgment, but denied Starbucks’ motion. Starbucks appealed.

A book on Mrs. Taubenfeld's reading list.

A book on Mrs. Taubenfeld’s reading list.

Held: Starbucks won and the suit was thrown out. While the lease between Park Plaza and Starbucks required Park Place to maintain the sidewalk and landscaping. Assuming that the tree well into which Taubenfeld tripped and fell is part of the sidewalk or landscape, the lease could not create a duty to the public that did not otherwise exist. The Court held that neither Park Plaza nor Starbucks owed a duty to the public to repair the protruding root since neither created the root or causehbnbd it to exist by reason of some special use of the sidewalk or tree well, or were obligated to maintain the sidewalk or tree well under some statute or ordinance.

In this case, the lease imposed on Starbucks only a duty to maintain those portions of the sidewalk that the coffee shop made special use of, for the purpose of providing outdoor seating for its customers. As to the remainder of the sidewalk beyond Starbucks’ outdoor seating, Park Plaza’s duty was limited by a Larchmont village ordinance that directed property owners to keep the sidewalk in front of their premises in good repair and safe condition for public use. That ordinance, however, did not specifically create tort liability.

While Starbucks made special use of a portion of the sidewalk by putting out two tables with two chairs each, the special use did not extend beyond the tables and chairs to the tree well where Taubenfeld fell, or to the people on the crowded sidewalk. Some of those people were walking and others were standing around Starbucks’ tables chatting. Taubenfeld complained that she had had to walk around them, diverting her path into the tree well. Even if this were true, that fact made neither Starbucks nor Park Plaza liable to her.

– Tom Root

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