Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Parking Garage Found Not Liable for Injuries Caused by Stolen Vehicle

Baldwin v. Garage Mgt. Corp.
(Sup. Ct., Kings Co., decided 1/7/2008), 
aff'd 66 AD3d 818 (2d Dept., decided 5/19/2009)

Although a bit dated, this decision just posted to the New York Official Reports yesterday, so I'll throw it up here.  Not strictly an insurance coverage case, but it involves a statute New York auto insurers occasionally  encounter in injury claims -- Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1210(a), commonly referred to as the "key in the ignition law", a violation of which renders an owner or bailee of a vehicle that is stolen liable to third parties for damages occasioned by the stolen vehicle's use. 

After stealing a vehicle from defendant's parking garage, Walker collided with Baldwin, injuring her and her son.  Baldwin sued the parking garage for her and her son's injuries, alleging causes of action based on negligence, violation of V&T § 1210, and breach of bailment obligations.

New York Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1210(a) provides:
§ 1210. Unattended motor vehicle. (a) No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key from the vehicle, and effectively setting the brake thereon and, when standing upon any grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway, provided, however, the provision for removing the key from the vehicle shall not require the removal of keys hidden from sight about the vehicle for convenience or emergency.
Vehicle & Traffic Law §1100(a) provides that §1210 applies "upon public highways, private roads open to public motor vehicle traffic and any other parking lot." V&T § 129-b defines a "parking lot" as:
any area or areas of private property near or contiguous to and provided in connection with premises having one or more stores or business establishments, and used by the public as a means of access to and egress from such stores and business establishments and for the parking of motor vehicles of customers and patrons of such stores and business establishments.
 In granting the garage defendants' motion and denying plaintiffs' cross motion for summary judgment, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Gloria Dabiri held:
  1. Negligence:  "The GMC defendants have demonstrated their entitlement to judgment on plaintiffs' common-law negligence claim in that it is undisputed that Walker operated the vehicle without the permission or consent of GMC (see Manning v Brown, 91 NY2d 116, 122 [1997]; Vehicle and Traffic Law §388[1]). Plaintiffs' injuries were the result of the intervening acts of the car thief and, therefore, GMC is not liable at common-law (Epstein v Mediterranean Motors, 109 AD2d 340, 344-345 [1985], affd 66 NY2d 1018 [1985]).
  2. Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1210(a):  "The statute is inapplicable in this instance, as the vehicle was not stolen from a 'parking lot' as defined by Vehicle and Traffic Law §129-b . . . GMC's garage was not an 'area . . . of private property . . . provided in connection with premises having one or more stores or businesses,' or used as a means of access to and from such businesses (VTL §129-b), as in the case of the parking lot of a strip mall or shopping center. To the contrary, the GMC garage is located in the lower level of a residential building, on a street consisting of residential buildings. Thus, plaintiffs fail to meet their prima facie burden of demonstrating that the location from which the vehicle was stolen falls within the statute's definition of 'parking lot' (see Albouyeh v County of Suffolk, 62 NY2d 681, 683 [1984]).  In addition, the vehicle was not left 'unattended' as required by section 1210[a]. Rather, the deposition testimony of GMC's witness is that the key to Dr. O'Cain's vehicle was removed from a keylock and given to Mr. Walker in the mistaken belief that Walker was the vehicle's owner (see Banellis v Yarkel, 49 NY2d 882 [1980]; Merchants Ins. Group v Haskins, 11 AD3d 694 [2004]; Poss v Feringa, 241 AD2d 877 [1997])."
  3. Breach of Bailment Obligation:  "[A] promisor under a contract is not liable in tort to non-contracting third-parties for negligent performance of its contractual duty (Church v Callanan Industries, Inc., 99 NY2d 104, 110-111 [2002], citing H.R. Moch Co. v Rensselaer Water Co., 247 NY 160 [1928])."
As a defense attorney, I had to smile at the decision's reference to plaintiffs' having included a request in their cross motion for sanctions against the garage defendants under 22 NYCRR § 130-1.1 for having made a frivolous motion for summary judgment.  So frivolous that the motion was granted in all respects and the complaint dismissed.  So frivolous that the Second Department unanimously affirmed the award of summary judgment to the garage defendants, with one bill of costs.  One of the reasons I like to litigate in federal court.  Rule 11 sanctions frivolous sanction requests.


Jonathan said...

I was the successful attorney for the Defendant in the Baldwin case -- a very interesting case, and one that I did not, in fact, think I would win. With respect to your comment regarding the Plaintiffs' motion for sanctions, that motion was even more interesting to you than you know. As a prolific blogger, writer and commentator, you should be interested to learn that the actual basis for the cross-motion for sanctions was Plaintiffs' counsel's (erroneous)contention that the affirmation in support of our motion "relied upon out-dated and/or inapplicable law which defense counsel himself has previously stated has no application to the issues before this court" -- referring to an article that we had written ten years earlier in the New York Law Journal. As specifically stated by Plaintiffs' counsel, "... defense counsel has written extensively about the change in the common law and the enactment of VTL 1210(a). Defense counsel then cites numerous cases, some of which he has lectured to his Law Journal readers are no longer controlling...." In my Opposition/Reply papers, I pointed out that, in fact, there was absolutely nothing in the 10-year-old Law Journal article that in any way contradicted or defeated the arguments made in support of our motion, and that counsel had completely misconstrued that article. At oral argument, I made further arguments concerning the chilling effect of what Plaintiffs' counsel was trying to do. The Judge wisely rejected the request for sanctions. Plaintiffs' appellate counsel wisely did not pursue that issue on the appeal.

I am sure you already know the risks we take when we place our words, thoughts and opinions "out there." With all of this in mind, your recently created "disclaimer" is particularly pertinent.

Jonathan A. Dachs
Shayne, Dachs, Corker, Sauer & Dachs
(A big fan of this blog)

David M. Gottlieb, Esq. said...

Far too often attorneys threaten to make motions for sanctions without any support. It's first used as a threat, then it's a motion, then the proponent usually looks stupid and has to backtrack. More often than not, threats are used as a crutch to mask ignorance of the law or out of sheer laziness. I'd be interested in seeing your opposition to the sanctions motion. I'm sure Roy would too.