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NJ court tosses $7.7 million judgment for woman who fell in Jersey City PATH station

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A state appeals court overturned a jury’s $7.7 million personal injury award to a doctor who fell while walking through a Jersey City PATH station, finding that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has a “lesser duty of care” when people aren’t getting on or off or riding trains.

The trial judge in Mandal v. Port Authority was wrong in instructing jurors to apply the “utmost caution” standard when all the woman was doing was walking through the station, the judges ruled.

In short: The level of duty owed to commuters depends on the location and circumstance, the appeals panel found, in ordering a new trial.

Physician Soma Mandal sued the Port Authority, Modern Facilities Services and Timberland Company in Superior Court in Jersey City after falling at the Pavonia Station on March 18, 2007.

The trial, which lasted 12 days, ended with a verdict that put 75% liability on the Port Authority and 25% on Modern. Mandal dismissed her claim against Timberland.

The award included $106,397 for past and future household expenses incurred as the result of her injury, $4.1 million for past and future lost earnings, and $3 million for pain and suffering – in addition to $503,605 in pre-judgment interest.

The Port Authority and Modern, which cleans the facility, appealed, arguing that the authority shouldn’t have been held to the traditional standard of “utmost caution” for common carriers, given that Mandal’s fall occurred “not while getting on or off or riding on a train.”

Their arguments also included the contention that the judge shouldn’t have allowed jurors to hear the deposition given by a Texas man who fell at the same station 18 hours before Mandal but was unable to testify during the 12-day trial.

Mandal entered the station at 7 o’clock that morning on her way to work at NYU Medical Center and began walking down the sloping North corridor ramp toward the platforms, court papers show.

The tiled floor was still wet from snow and rain the day before, so Modern put down black mats under the corridor’s handrails, the suit says.

While walking on the  mats — and without using the handrail — Mandal slipped, according to the appeals court decision.

“She could not recall on which part of her body she had fallen, but remembered ‘lying face down . . . against the tiles.’ And, although she did not know what caused the fall, plaintiff recalled having ‘walked on a slippery mat’,” it says.

Because the incident occurred “in an underground corridor on her way to the train platform” and not “while she was boarding a train or even while on the platform waiting to board a train,” the Port Authority didn’t owe her the same “standard of care” as it would otherwise, the appeals judges found.

“[W]en 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,” with a lesser standard of care and liability, they said.

They cited a 1993 court decision that found the authority didn’t bear increased liability for an assault on a woman by a homeless man at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan – but, rather, held responsibility as a landlord.

They even went back to a 1934 decision that cited a “distinction, long recognized by the courts of this state, between the degree of care required of a common carrier, with respect to the safe carriage of its passengers, and that required in the construction and maintenance of its station and the approaches thereto.”

“The Port Authority’s duty to a patron extends throughout the station and, indeed, even beyond its perimeter,” the appeals panel wrote, “but any change in the level of care depends on the location of the incident.”

As a result, the local judge violated state law in both New Jersey and New York in telling jurors that the authority owed Mandal the duty to “use the utmost caution” to protect her once she entered the station, the appellate court found.

(The Port Authority is a bi-state agency.)

“Indeed,the judge specifically told the jury that, in cases involving a ‘slippery condition’ from the effect of weather, the Port Authority must be held to a ‘high degree of care.’ This erroneous instruction struck at the heart of the matter and was clearly capable of producing an unjust result,” yesterday’s decision says.

No further proof of that was necessary, the judges said, than the jury’s decision to put three-quarters of the responsible on the authority.

The judge’s instruction “was prejudicial and a retrial on liability and the allocation of liability is necessary to remedy the error,” they wrote.

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