Synagogue Owed Duty to Study-Abroad Student

In Katz v United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2016 NY Slip Op 00094 (App. Div. 1st Dept. Jan. 12, 2016), the court held that the defendant owed the injured plaintiff a duty, and permitted her negligence claim to continue. This decision outlines general principles regarding the critical/threshold issue of duty in a negligence case.

Here are the facts of the case, as summarized by the court:

Plaintiff suffered a knee injury while participating in a study-abroad program in Israel that was operated by defendant. At the time of her injury, she was a 19-year old student who had limited knowledge of Hebrew and was living in a small town in southern Israel, in an apartment provided to her by the program, which also provided the participants with counselors in order to help them with, inter alia, medical issues. According to plaintiff when physical therapy was prescribed for her knee injury, defendant refused to arrange for such treatment and, as a result, her recovery was delayed and compromised.

The law:

In order to establish a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must show that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty and breached that duty, and that the breach proximately caused the plaintiff harm. The existence of a duty depends on the circumstances, and the issue is one of law for the court; the court is to apply a broad range of societal and policy factors.

In determining the threshold question of whether a defendant owes a plaintiff a duty of care, courts must balance relevant factors, including the reasonable expectations of parties and society generally, the proliferation of claims, the likelihood of unlimited or insurer-like liability, disproportionate risk and reparation allocation, and public policies affecting the expansion or limitation of new channels of liability. The parties’ relationship may create a duty where it places the defendant in the best position to protect against the risk of harm [] and [] the specter of limitless liability is not present. Thus, where a defendant exercises a sufficient degree of control over an event, a duty of care to plaintiff may arise.

Applying the law to the facts, the court held that “the parties’ relationship created a duty to provide plaintiff with the necessary medical care because not only did defendant agree to do so, it was in the best position to protect against the risk of harm and the specter of limitless liability [was] not present.” Plaintiff testified that “defendant represented that it would assist her with medical care, which practice the program director confirmed” and “that the program refused to help her obtain prescribed physical therapy[.]” In addition, “it was foreseeable that the failure to arrange for prescribed care could compromise recovery.”

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