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Fixing a Hole – First Department Reverses Defense Verdict in Sinkhole Case (NY)

June 29, 2017

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In <a href=""><em>Gonzalez v City of New York, </em>(2017 NY Slip Op 05180)</a>, the First Department recently held that a Bronx trial court’s erroneous evidentiary decisions improperly resulted in a directed verdict for the defense.
Plaintiff alleges he was injured when he fell into a sinkhole while walking across a public street in the Bronx, and that the area immediately surrounding the sinkhole was mushy and wet. Further, there was evidence showing that two weeks prior to his accident, a nearby water main burst. The City repaired the water main and then third-party defendant Halcyon Construction Corp. back-filled the hole. At trial, plaintiff claimed the repair work by the City and Halcyon resulted in the sinkhole.
At trial, the court precluded plaintiff from introducing photographs of the sinkhole into evidence. As those photographs were taken two weeks after the plaintiff’s alleged accident, the court found that they did not fairly and accurately depict the actual site. Plaintiff also tried to introduce the City’s road and highway specifications, arguing that because the specifications were incorporated into the contract between the City and Halcyon, they were relevant to defendants’ negligence. Again, the court precluded the plaintiff’s evidence, finding that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the specifications were anything other than “inadmissible internal rules, which would improperly create a standard of care higher than the one imposed by the common law.”
At the end of plaintiff’s case-in-chief, both the City and Halcyon moved for a directed verdict. The court found that there was insufficient evidence to find that either entity created the sinkhole, so it granted both motions. The plaintiff then moved to set aside the directed verdict, arguing that the court erred in precluding admissible evidence.  Not surprisingly, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion.
On appeal, the First Department held that the trial court erred in precluding plaintiff’s photographs of the accident site, even though they were taken two weeks after the accident. Of note, the First Department found that the plaintiff authenticated the photographs at his deposition, and other testimony at trial could have explained whether and to what extent the photographs depicted the accident site. Essentially, by precluding the photographs, the plaintiff was unable to show the jury the hole that he allegedly fell into. Further, the First Department held that the trial court erred in precluding the plaintiff from introducing the City’s road and highway specifications that were incorporated into its contract with Halcyon. As they applied both to the direct defendant (the City) and the third-party defendant (Halcyon), the First Department found that the specifications were admissible as potential evidence of the defendants’ negligence. As the trial court precluded the very evidence that plaintiff needed to argue the defendants’ negligence – the basis upon which the trial court granted the directed verdict – the First Department reversed the directed verdict.  Thanks to Evan King for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.

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