A state appeals court on Thursday threw out a $7.7 million personal injury award to a commuter injured in a PATH station, holding a lesser duty of care applies to people walking through stations than those on or boarding trains.
The court held in Mandal v. Port Authority, A-100-10, that the trial judge erroneously instructed the jury to apply the heightened "utmost caution" standard imposed on common carriers.
But the precedential appeals court opinion said the level of duty the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owes patrons depends on the location.
"If the plaintiff was injured while riding a train or while embarking or disembarking from a train, the common-carrier standard of care might arguably apply," it said.
But "when patrons are in a train station on their way to or from a platform, the Port Authority’s role is that of an occupier of land and the less onerous standard of care applicable to that undertaking governed the Port Authority’s liability here," the court said.
Reversal was required because the "erroneous instruction struck at the heart of the matter and was clearly capable of producing an unjust result," it added.
The jury allocated 75 percent to the Port Authority and 25 percent to Modern Facilities Services of East Hanover, which cleans the Pavonia-Newport PATH Station in Jersey City, where the accident occurred.
Although the jury got a correct instruction on the standard of care for Modern, the case also had to be retried against Modern because the incorrect standard for the Port Authority impacted allocation of responsibility.
Dr. Soma Mandal, then 35 and a Jersey City resident, was headed to work at New York University Medical Center on March 18, 2007, when she fell in the station’s north corridor, a sloping ramp that leads to the boarding platforms.
During the previous day’s snow and rain, Modern had placed mats on the floor.
Mandal claimed she walked on the mats not using the hand rail and about halfway down the corridor, her right foot slipped, causing her to fall and land face down on the tiled floor and fracture her dominant right arm and elbow.
She said she did not know what caused the fall but recalled the mat as being "slippery."
After surgeries that placed screws, metal plates and wires in her arm, Mandal claimed she continued to suffer numbness, pain and loss of motion that interfered with her ability to treat patients. She allegedly had to stop working for NYU.
She sued the Port Authority and Modern.
Prior to trial, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Hector Velazquez determined that the heightened standard of care applied to the Port Authority, though it was the trial judge, Mark Baber, who gave the instruction.
On May 17, 2010, the jury awarded Mandal $4.125 million for lost wages, $3 million for pain and suffering, and $106,397 for past and future household expenses incurred as a result of her injury.
The $7,735,002 judgment for Mandal included $503,605 in prejudgment interest.
The Port Authority’s 75 percent share was $5,801,252; Modern’s 25 percent share was $1,933,750.
Appellate Division Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr., with Alexander Waugh Jr. and Jerome St. John, decided additional issues that will affect what happens on retrial.
They ruled, as a matter of first impression, that prejudgment interest can be awarded against the Port Authority, which had argued it is immune from such damages as a public entity under the Tort Claims Act.
The appeals court relied on the Supreme Court holding in Bell v. Bell, 83 N.J. 417 (1980), that the Tort Claims Act does not apply to the Delaware River Port Authority, seeing no reason to treat the bistate agencies differently.
It also based its ruling on the compact between New Jersey and New York that created the Port Authority and provides that it can sue and be sued to the same extent as a private corporation and thus allows it to be held liable for prejudgment interest.
There were other issues that were part of an expanded, nonprecedential version of the opinion.
Mandal was allowed to read the deposition testimony of Gregory Baumer, a Texas resident who said he fell on a mat in the same corridor the day before Mandal.
Velazquez ruled she could do so to show the dangerous state of the corridor and the defendants’ knowledge of the conditions because the two falls were sufficiently similar.
The appeals court agreed on allowing Baumer’s testimony but said his lay opinion on how the mat’s design enabled it to become slippery should be excluded if the defendants objected to it at the new trial, which they had not done at the first one.
The court also upheld the spoliation charge given to the jury for the defendants’ failure to preserve security video of the corridor and maintenance records.
Further, it agreed with Modern that the plaintiff lawyer "went over the line" during summation when he accused defense counsel of improperly attacking Mandal’s credibility and said those comments should not be repeated.
On the other hand, it was permissible to tell the jury that the defense experts were hired guns "who will say anything to this jury for a paycheck."
Mandal’s lawyer, Christopher Hager of Niedweske Barber Hager in Morristown, calls the reversal a "grave injustice" to Mandal.
He says she suffered a permanent, life-altering injury that cost her "substantial income and the ability to enjoy the practice she had been developing."
In his view, the jury was correctly instructed based on Model Civil Jury Charge 5.73, which says that "Carriers must use the utmost caution to protect their passengers" and that the carrier-passenger relationship starts when a person enters the station with the intent of becoming a passenger.
Benjamin Clarke of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck, representing Modern, calls the decision on standard of care important and welcomes the other aspects of the ruling, too, as setting "clear boundaries for what’s fair and what’s foul in any retrial."
The Port Authority was represented by Sean Kelly of Saiber in Florham Park, who referred a call to the agency.
Spokesman Steve Coleman declines comment. •