The Connecticut Supreme Court decided many interesting cases regarding tort issues this year. One recent case just posted in mid-September shed new light on a variety of complex issues. Mirjavadi v. Vakilzadeh arose from the kidnapping of the plaintiff’s daughter, Saba, by the plaintiff’s ex-husband, who took the 2-year-old child back to Iran. The kidnapping took place at a supervised visitation occurring at the Stamford Town Center mall. A related criminal case, State v. Vakilzaden, previously had gone before the Supreme Court twice.
While there were previously other defendants in the case, those matters were resolved and the case was tried in the trial court with Maria Varone, a legal aide attorney who had been hired to supervise the regular father-daughter visits, as the sole remaining defendant. The father abducted the daughter with the help of a relative, who distracted the attorney at a key moment.
Among Varone’s defense claims were that the father seemed less of a threat to abduct his daughter for several reasons — one being he had recently found a job in Connecticut — and therefore his actions were not foreseeable. And so, the defense argued, the actions of those conspiring to effectuate the abduction were a superseding cause, thus absolving any negligence on Varone’s part.
The plaintiff’s response to these claims were that the very reason supervised visitation was in place was because of the risk of abduction by the father to take the child back to Iran (the plaintiff-mother had obtained political asylum and thus could not ever go back to Iran). Thus, the plaintiff argued, the abduction was inherently foreseeable, and the occurrence of the very risk of third party actions one is charged with protecting against can never constitute a superseding cause as a matter of law.
This case had a convoluted procedural history on appeal which entailed two articulations by the trial court and supplemental briefing ordered by the Appellate Court post argument. During that process, the issue of the trial court’s treatment of the purpose of the supervised visitations essentially morphed from a factual finding to a legal conclusion. That very process formed the first issue the Supreme Court dealt with in its opinion. The Supreme Court recognized that it is appropriate for a reviewing court to recast or reformulate a question on appeal to most appropriately deal with the case before it. This gives the reviewing court a fair basis of flexibility to best resolve the case as it develops rather than being unnecessarily constrained based on how the issue was first presented.
On the merits, the Supreme Court addressed the somewhat odd way in which foreseeability in such a case drives the analysis of both duty and causation. After explaining how foreseeability plays into both duty and causation in this context, the Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Court and held that the trial court “erred in concluding that because the circumstances surrounding the visitations seemingly had changed, that vitiated the obligation of the defendant to continue to ensure that no abduction occurred.”
Therefore, the case was remanded for a new trial to consider the issues regarding duty and causation in their proper context with regards to the purpose of the supervised visitations. The case highlighted that the proper analysis in such cases is whether harm of the general nature of that suffered was foreseeable, knowing what the defendant knew or should have known — which does not require precognition of the exact specific facts and timing of what ultimately occurred.
Another interesting recent case is Giacalone v. Housing Authority, 306 Conn. 399 (2012). In Giacalone, the plaintiff brought a claim for personal injuries resulting from a dog bite. The defendant was not the owner or keeper of the dog, but rather the landlord. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a landlord may be held liable, under a common-law theory of premises liability, for injuries sustained by a tenant after being bitten by a dog owned by a fellow tenant and kept on premises owned by the common landlord, when the landlord knew of the dog’s dangerous propensities, but did not have direct care of, or control over, the dog.
The trial court had granted a motion to strike the plaintiff’s claim, holding that the plaintiff could not recover under any factual scenario because the complaint did not allege that the defendant was the dog’s owner or keeper. The Appellate Court reversed, and the Supreme Court affirmed.
The Supreme Court rejected the attempt to put artificially narrow constraints on the general duty of landlords to use reasonable care to avoid foreseeable harm over the property they control. “Whether a dangerous condition is created by rats, snow, rotting wood or vicious dogs, these differing facts present no fundamental ground of distinction. What defines the landlord’s duty is the obligation to take reasonable measures to ensure that the space over which it exercises dominion is safe from dangers, and a landlord may incur liability by failing to do so.”
This case displayed a refreshing application of one of the general overarching principles of tort law (that one with the ability to do so should use reasonable care to avoid foreseeable injury to others). It equally displayed a refreshing avoidance of rigid adherence to formalistic notions seeking to pigeonhole liability to certain narrowly defined circumstances that don’t seem supported by any compelling need, other than a desire for formulaic rules without regard to whether said rules undermine the larger principles they are ostensibly created to support. Hippocrates admonition to do no harm should be kept in mind when adopting legal principles just as when performing medical procedures.•