By: Scott Hobson
Experts aren’t quite sure when, but most people agree that somewhere along the way, our legal system lost its way. Consider exhibit A, the recent case Custodi v. Town of Amherst, in which a rollerblader injured herself after she caught her skate on the lip between a driveway and the street and fell. She promptly sued the homeowners and a laundry list of public entities including the Town of Amherst, the Erie County Highway Department, Erie County, the Village of Williamsville, and the Department of Public Works for her injuries, claiming failure to maintain safe premises.
In an eminently reasonable and rational ruling, the Supreme Court rejected her claim, agreeing with the defendants that rollerblading is an inherently risky activity and that rollerbladers knowingly accept this risk. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) overturned that decision, holding the Town of Amherst and the private homeowners liable for her injuries. Custodi’s lawyers actually successfully argued that the risk of her activity was not inherent because she, an experienced rollerblader, had never encountered the hazard of a two inch differential before. It defies belief.
In New York, municipalities are often sued because of their deep pockets, thanks to a New York law that can force them to pay 100% of a judgment even if they are only 1% responsible. Custodi’s lawyers probably expected an easy settlement from the town just to make the case go away – imagine their surprise when the town of Amherst, no stranger to big money lawsuits, stepped up to fight the case. And as ridiculous as this lawsuit is, the fact that we’re all paying for it is no laughing matter.
New York must eliminate the rule of joint and several liability in favor of the more just and rational rule of comparative negligence, in which defendants are liable for only the proportion of the damages for which they were at fault. Moreover, we must clarify our judicial code to allow property owners to better defend themselves against lawsuits by trespassers, as is already the case in a vast majority of states. Without such reforms, New Yorkers will continue to bear the burden of runaway jackpot lawsuits.