Business Law Case

Topics: Contract, Tort, Contractual term Pages: 5 (2229 words) Published: May 1, 2014
98 N.Y.2d 136 (2002)
773 N.E.2d 485
746 N.Y.S.2d 120
VIOLETA ESPINAL, Appellant,
v.
MELVILLE SNOW CONTRACTORS, INC., Respondent.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Argued April 23, 2002.
Decided June 4, 2002.
137*137 Thomas Torto, New York City, for appellant.

Mauro Goldberg & Lilling LLP, Great Neck (Christopher Simone, Caryn L. Lilling and Matthew Naparty of counsel), and Law Office of Ted M. Tobias for respondent.

Chief Judge KAYE and Judges SMITH, LEVINE, CIPARICK, WESLEY and GRAFFEO concur.

OPINION OF THE COURT

ROSENBLATT, J.

Plaintiff has brought this personal injury action against defendant, a company that entered into a snow removal contract with a property owner. We are called upon to determine whether the company may be held liable to plaintiff for injuries she sustained when she slipped and fell on the premises. To 138*138 decide this appeal, we must determine whether a contractor of this type owes a duty to a third person, such as plaintiff.

On January 28, 1994 plaintiff slipped and fell in a parking lot owned by her employer, Miltope Corporation. Attributing her fall to an "icy condition," plaintiff sued Melville Snow Contractors, the company under contract to plow and remove snow from the premises.[1] She alleged that Melville created the icy condition by negligently removing snow from the parking lot. Melville moved for summary judgment, contending that it owed no duty of care to plaintiff.

Supreme Court denied the motion, concluding that Melville had failed to show that "there was a reasonable explanation for the existence of the ice * * * other than a failure on its part to remove snow and ice in a non-negligent manner." The Appellate Division reversed, granted Melville's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. The Court held that Melville owed plaintiff no duty of care. Important for purposes of this appeal, the Court also held that plaintiff's "allegation that [Melville] created or exacerbated the hazardous condition did not provide a basis for liability." (283 AD2d 546, 547.) We now affirm the order of the Appellate Division, but on different grounds.

Because a finding of negligence must be based on the breach of a duty, a threshold question in tort cases is whether the alleged tortfeasor owed a duty of care to the injured party (see Darby v Compagnie Natl. Air France, 96 NY2d 343, 347 [2001]; Pulka v Edelman, 40 NY2d 781, 782 [1976]). Here, the issue is whether any such duty ran from Melville to plaintiff, given that Melville's snow removal contract was with the property owner. As we have often said, the existence and scope of a duty is a question of law requiring courts to balance sometimes competing public policy considerations (see e.g. Palka v Servicemaster Mgt. Servs. Corp., 83 NY2d 579, 585-586 [1994]; Eaves Brooks Costume Co. v Y.B.H. Realty Corp., 76 NY2d 220, 226-227 [1990]).

Under our decisional law a contractual obligation, standing alone, will generally not give rise to tort liability in favor of a third party (see Eaves Brooks, 76 NY2d at 226). Seventy-four years ago, in H.R. Moch Co. v Rensselaer Water Co. (247 NY 139*139 160 [1928]), Chief Judge Cardozo stated that imposing liability under such circumstances could render the contracting parties liable in tort to "an indefinite number of potential beneficiaries" (id. at 168). As a matter of policy, we have generally declined to impose liability to that degree. On the other hand, we have recognized that under some circumstances, a party who enters into a contract thereby assumes a duty of care to certain persons outside the contract (see Palka, 83 NY2d at 586; Strauss v Belle Realty Co., 65 NY2d 399, 402 [1985]). Having rejected the concept of open-ended tort liability, while recognizing that liability to third persons may sometimes be appropriate, we must determine where to draw the line (see De Angelis v Lutheran Med. Ctr., 58 NY2d 1053, 1055 [1983]). Although the...
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