Court allows JFK traveler’s slip/fall action to continue

A recent decision by a New York trial court – Alicea v. JetBlue Airways Corp. – analyzes issues that commonly arise in a slip-and-fall case where the accident occurs in an area (here, JFK airport) where the rights, duties, and obligations of various parties intersect.  These issues include:  (1) the duties owed by an out-of-possession landlord; (2) actual and constructive notice; and (3) indemnification.  The case arose from plaintiff’s claim that she injured herself after losing her balance on a jetbridge after exiting a Jetblue plane.

1. Out of Possession Landlord

The court initially found that defendant Port Authority was entitled to dismissal, as it was an “out of possession landlord” that owed no duty to plaintiff.  The court stated the controlling law as follows:

“An out-of-possession landlord owes no duty to maintain and make repairs upon demised property unless he retains control over the property or is contractually obligated to perform such maintenance and repairs”[.] … While “the duty to maintain and repair may be imposed upon the landlord by statute…[i]t is well established that there is no statute imposing a duty on the Port Authority…to maintain and repair the various terminals that it leases to individual airlines at [JFK] Airport”.

The portion of the PA/JB lease that shielded JB from liability provided that Jetblue was required to “assume the entire responsibility and shall relieve the Port Authority from all responsibility for all repair, rebuilding and maintenance whatsoever in the Premises, and the Non-Premises Portion of the Terminal…whether such repair, rebuilding, or maintenance be ordinary or extraordinary, partial or entire, inside or outside, foreseen or unforeseen, structural or otherwise”; “[keep] at all times in a clean and orderly condition and appearance, the Terminal…which is open to or visible by the general public”; “[t]ake good care of the [p]remises and…maintain the same at all times in good condition”; and “perform all necessary preventative maintenance.”

2. Actual/Constructive Notice

As to liability, Jetblue failed to establish a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, rendering a review of plaintiff’s opposition papers unnecessary.

Initially, Jetblue “failed to conclusively establish that it did not have actual notice of the alleged condition because it is unclear whether it received or addressed any complaints with regard to the jetbridge and/or the alleged condition prior to plaintiff’s fall”.  The court cited the testimony of a Jetblue customer service representative that, “while he did not receive any complaints or notice of any incidents prior to plaintiff’s accident, Jetblue did not keep records of any complaints and he was not aware of whether Jetblue followed up on any complaints it may have received” and that “he did not inspect the jetbridge after the incident and did not know what caused plaintiff’s fall.”

Moroever, the court found, in light of the incompleteness of tendered inspection reports, that Jetblue “failed to demonstrate that it lacked constructive notice of the alleged condition by conclusively showing that there was no dangerous condition observed at the time a preventative maintenance inspection was performed on the day before plaintiff’s fall”.

Finally, while it was “unclear from plaintiff’s non-specific testimony what actually caused her to fall because she testified to the alleged condition being a small ramp, a raised portion and a height differential, Jetblue … failed to demonstrate that there was no inherently dangerous defect on the floor of the jetbridge”.

3. Indemnification/Contribution

The court also denied third-party defendant Oxford Airport Technical Services, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Jetblue’s claim against it for contractual indemnification.

Initially, the indemnification portion of the parties’ contract broadly provided that Oxford “shall at all times indemnify and hold harmless [Jetblue] from and against any and all claims, liability, loss, cost or expense of whatever kind or nature…arising out of or attributable to the performance of [the] [a]greement” and hence did “not condition Oxford’s liability to indemnify Jetblue on negligence.” Oxford may, therefore, be “required to indemnify Jetblue for all claims arising out of or attributable to the performance of the agreement.”

The court held, however, that

based upon the papers presented and plaintiff’s non-specific and vague testimony, it remains unclear what caused the accident. Oxford, as the movant herein, has failed to conclusively demonstrate that the accident did not arise out of, or was not attributable to, the performance of the agreement and, thus, it is not entitled to dismissal of the third-party claim for contractual indemnification.