Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Interesting Illumination of Dismissal

There have been some recent interesting cases involving supervisor liability, Recent Decisions may Caution Supervisors. But WorkCompCentral recently reported that a New York Court Says Worker Can Proceed With Claims Against Landlord, Tenant and Contractor. That decision may suggest pause for those involved in renovation and construction. 

It is important to remember that legal disputes generally include multiple categories of decisions that require resolution. The two main categories are fact and law. Judges have the primary responsibility for legal questions. They decide what evidence is relevant, what is too prejudicial or inflammatory, and what is inappropriate. There are various procedural tools that empower judges to dismiss cases, or to dismiss particular parties from cases. This recent New York case illustrates the process well. 

The decisions about facts can be made by either judges (bench trials) or juries. Because of their legal role described above, even in jury trials, judges play some role regarding facts. In those instances, the judge will still decide what "facts" the jury is allowed to hear about. But, the point is that factual decisions (was the traffic signal red or green? Did the saw have a blade guard or not?) may be made differently than legal decisions. This distinction is critical to this case and its reminders of how the legal system functions.  

Hoa Lam is the injured worker in this New York case. He was a "day laborer" brought to the work site by Triple 8 Construction, a contractor hired by Lin's Garden Restaurant, which leased the space from Sky Realty. Mr. Lam was injured when a tool malfunctioned at the work site. 

Mr. Lam "filed for and received Workers' Compensation benefits." according to the court's order. He then sued the three defendants for personal injury alleging violations of New York labor law and "common-law negligence." He is thus seeking civil damages from his employer, the restaurant that hired his employer, and the company that owns the building. The three defendants sought dismissal, which the trial court denied and the appellate court affirmed. 

The court explained that New York labor law has codified "the common-law duty of an owner or contractor to provide employees with a safe place to work." If a defendant has "the authority to supervise or control the performance of the work" then it may be liable for safety issues. The Court explained that this potentially implicates anyone that "lends allegedly dangerous or defective equipment to a worker that causes injury." So, that does not necessarily mean that all three defendants are liable. That means that they remain potentially liable. 

Such a defendant can be dismissed from the litigation, but only upon a showing that "it neither created the alleged danger or defect in the instrumentality nor had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous or defective condition." This Court's analysis is not necessarily groundbreaking, concluding that the trial court appropriately denied the defendant's motions to dismiss. It is, however, educational on the subject of dismissal or summary judgment. It illustrates the process for deciding how cases are dismissed by judges and how others proceed. 

This New York appellate decision does not conclude that the three defendants are liable for the plaintiff's injuries. The court concluded merely that the three defendants "failed to establish their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law." That does not mean that the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but it means that the litigation will continue, because the evidence at the time the defendants sought dismissal "fails to eliminate all triable issues of fact." 

What issues of fact? The decision is not entirely clear. The Court did focus on one critical fact, discussed more fully below. However, it may be that there is mystery about to whom this particular tool belonged? Did any of the defendants make changes to the tool which made it dangerous?" Did any of the defendants know that the tool was in a dangerous condition, or was it apparent such that any of them should have known? When there are no longer "triable issues of fact," then it may be appropriate for the assigned judge to apply the law and perhaps dismiss parties. 

When there are disputes as to facts (who owned this tool?), those disputes are most appropriate for a jury to decide. So, when a party seeks dismissal the judge considers the work that has been done to clarify or establish facts. If the facts are sufficiently clear and established, usually through evidence such as documents and testimony (which might be depositions or affidavits or both), then the judge may apply the law to those undisputed facts and dismiss a party from the lawsuit. 

The one critical fact noted by the court, however, is which of the three businesses was actually the plaintiff's employer. Determinations of the employer/employee relationship can be complex. They include obvious questions such as who hired and paid a person. But, they may also include questions such as who directed or controlled the person's activity on the job. This New York court explained that factual determinations were necessary regarding which defendant here was the "employer," and thus whether the injuries "arose out of or in the course of his employment."

The burden on each of the defendants, in seeking to be summarily relieved of liability, was to "eliminate all triable issues of fact as to its freedom from negligence." When such issues remain, the court clarified, summary judgment is inappropriate. Lawyers know, and plaintiffs and defendants should learn, that decisions such as this are the reason that effective and careful discovery is critical to development of any case. The care invested in discovery may well be what distinguishes whether a case proceeds to a jury or is dismissed by a judge.  

Over my years of practice, I worked with a vast spectrum of clients. From the Fortune 50 to individuals. And there were countless conversations about discovery, its parameters, constraints, strengths and challenges. Those engaged in litigation would be well advised to understand the importance of this process, its potential to impact rights and responsibilities. Discovery illuminates facts, enhances understanding, and can change the outcome of a case. 

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