Monthly Archives: February 2016

Bongiovanni v Cavagnuolo, ___ AD 3d ___, 2016 NY Slip Op 00638

In a malpractice action an opinion as to causation may be rendered by an expert in a field related to the injury, even though the underlying claim of negligence relates to a specialist in a different field. In this malpractice action against a chiropractor, therefore, opinions as to the causation of plaintiff’s disk injuries could be received from non-chiropractors whose expertise was in orthopedics and radiology. These opinions related to causation only, which was within the experts’ fields of expertise, and not to the standard of care applicable to chiropractors.

One of the hallmarks of a professional negligence case is that the profession itself is generally allowed to set the standard of good and accepted practice. Negligent care, or malpractice, is a departure from that standard. It follows that expert testimony as to whether the care at issue departed from that standard must come from those whose expertise is established either by their being practitioners in the same field or through some other combination of training, skill or experience. The principle also extends to specialists: Expert opinion must come from specialists in the same field or those who can otherwise establish the reliability of their opinions.

In a chiropractic malpractice case such as this, therefore, whether the defendant departed from the standard of good and accepted practice would normally require expert testimony from chiropractors. Normally, an orthopedic surgeon could not testify as to whether a given chiropractic treatment deviated from the chiropractic standard.

There is, of course, a second issue: whether or not the acts of malpractice were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Here, expert testimony need not necessarily come from experts in the same field of treatment, but may come from anyone whose expertise as to the nature of the injuries would justify an opinion as to their origin and causation.

The plaintiff’s claim here was that the defendant chiropractor engaged in improper and unduly forceful manipulations of her thoracic spine, resulting in trauma to a cervical disk, requiring a discectomy and fusion surgery.

Defendant moved for summary judgment both as to a deviation from acceptable standards of care and as to causation. As to deviation, defendant offered his own affidavit, to the effect that there was no deviation from accepted standards. This is of course permitted.

Defendant then offered the affidavits of an orthopedic surgeon and a radiologist. Both of these were restricted to the issue of causation, saying nothing about the standard of chiropractic care. Both concluded that the injuries were degenerative, pre-existing the treatment at issue. In opposition, the plaintiff offered the affidavit of a radiologist, who also restricted his opinion to causation, finding that the injury was caused by a significant amount of force, consistent with the plaintiff’s claims.

Supreme Court held that the opinions of defendant’s experts were inadmissible, as the experts had not established a knowledge of chiropractic treatment. The court held that the defendant had accordingly not sustained his initial burden of proof on the motion, and denied it.

The Appellate Division affirmed, but on a different ground. The opinions of the experts, being limited to the causation of the plaintiff’s disk injuries, were squarely within their areas of expertise. They were therefore admissible on the motion. The disagreement between them raised a triable issue of fact, and that was the proper rationale for denial of the motion.

As to the issue of deviation from the standard of care, the Appellate Division held that the defendant’s affidavit failed to establish the applicable standard of care, rendering his opinion as to the lack of any deviation to be conclusory. He therefore failed to sustain his initial burden on this score, and the court did not consider the plaintiff’s opposition.

McCord v Larsen, 132 A.D.3d 1115, 18 N.Y.S.3d 458 [3rd Dept., 2015]

Plaintiff alleged that she was injured in a building owned by the defendant, due to a defective porch railing. She sued, and claimed to have served the summons by deliver-and-mail (CPLR 308 [2]). The defendant did not answer, and judgment by default was obtained against him.

He now moved to vacate the default judgment on the grounds that he had not received the summons and complaint in time to defend, and to dismiss the action for lack of jurisdiction. Supreme Court denied both branches of the motion.

The first question must be the jurisdictional one, since if there is no personal jurisdiction the judgment is void. The first step in deliver-and-mail service is delivery to a person of suitable age and discretion at the defendant’s actual place of business, dwelling place, or usual place of abode. The delivery in this case was made to the defendant’s ex-wife, at her residence in the Town of Blooming Grove, Orange County. The defendant had moved out long before the delivery, and claimed that he had moved his business from that address as well. However, the plaintiff showed proof that he advertised his business from that address, and had not changed the address with either the Postal Service or DMV. Delivery was therefore held to have been validly made, and jurisdiction properly upheld.

Read More

Faison v Lewis, 25 N.Y.3d 220, 10 N.Y.S.3d 185 [2015]

            In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals held here that claims challenging conveyances or encumbrances based on a forged deed are not subject to statutes of limitations.

            The claim here was that the interest of plaintiff’s decedent, her father Percy Lee Gogins, had been purportedly conveyed to his sister and niece, the defendants Dorothy and Tonya Lewis, by means of a forged deed, recorded in 2001. Plaintiff clearly knew of the claimed forgery as early as 2002, when she commenced an action to set aside the deed. That first action was dismissed for lack of capacity, since plaintiff was not at that time the administrator of Gogins’ estate. In 2009, the defendant Tonya Lewis over $269,000 from Bank of America, secured by a mortgage against the property. By August of 2010, plaintiff had been made administrator of Gogins’ estate, and commenced this action against Dorothy Lewis, Tonya Lewis, Bank of America and others, to declare both the deed and mortgage null and void as based on a forged deed. The defendants raised limitations defenses, and moved to dismiss. The plaintiff cross-moved to strike the defenses.

            A forged deed is void ab initio, that is, void in its inception, it is a legal nullity and conveys no interest at all in the property it purports to transfer. It follows that the holder of such a document has no interest in that property, and a mortgage granted to that holder also conveys no interest in the property. So much is settled law. (Marden v Dorthy, 160 N.Y. 39 [1899])

            The nullity of a forged deed must be distinguished from the status of a deed which was obtained by fraud. A deed obtained by fraud in the inducement is voidable and not void, and unless and until it is set aside it does transfer title to the fraudulent grantee, who may in turn convey an interest to a purchaser in good faith. (Marden v Dorthy, 160 N.Y. at 50)

            The majority in Faison held that the nullity of the void deed led to the conclusion that no limitations period applied. The forged deed being void, its “legal status cannot be changed, regardless of how long it may take for the forgery to be uncovered.”[3] Specifically, a forged deed cannot be regarded as simply a fraud, governed by CPLR 213 (8), even though that contains an extension for delayed discovery of the fraud. The Court analogized the situation of a forged deed with that of an illegal contract, also void in its inception, which carries no limitations period. (see, Riverside Syndicate, Inc. v. Munroe, 10 N.Y.3d 18 [2008]) The mere passage of time, or the expiration of a limitations period, cannot have the effect of validating what the law has expressly rejected.

            The dissent would have held that the discovery provisions of CPLR 213 (8) provide a sufficiently long period in which to discover and challenge a forged deed as well as a merely fraudulent one, and that the interests of protecting interests in property against stale claims mandated its applicability here.

Pegasus Aviation I, Inc. v Varig Logistica S.A., ___ NY3d ___, ___ NYS3d ___, 2015 NY Slip Op 09187 [2015]

The Court of Appeals here endorsed the holding of VOOM HD Holdings LLC v EchoStar Satellite L.L.C., 93 A.D.3d 33, 939 N.Y.S.2d 321 [1st Dept., 2012], concerning imposition of sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Imposition of a sanction for spoliation requires proof of three elements: (1) control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it; (2) that the party destroyed or lost the evidence with a “culpable state of mind”; and (3) that the evidence was relevant to the claim or defense.  “Culpable state of mind” includes ordinary negligence. Relevance is established where the evidence is lost intentionally or willfully, so as to amount to gross negligence; but where the loss is merely negligent relevance must be shown by the proponent of sanctions. Gross negligence, such as to support a finding of relevance, may be shown by serious failings such as not issuing a written litigation hold to employees, failing to identify “key players” and ensure that their documents are preserved, or continuing to delete emails. The distinction between simple and gross negligence thus becomes highly important.

Here, the dispute centered primarily on just that distinction: whether the defendant Varig Logistica (“VarigLog”) had failed to preserve electronically stored information (“ESI”) due to ordinary negligence or gross negligence.

VarigLog had failed to preserve emails, had not instituted any sort of litigation “hold” to ensure that materials were preserved, did not even have a centralized storage system for emails but stored them on the computers of individual employees, and that such as it did have on a central system had been lost in a series of computer crashes. Supreme Court held that the failure to establish a litigation hold established gross negligence, struck VarigLog’s answer, and imposed a trial sanction of an adverse inference upon certain other defendants. The Appellate Division was divided on the issue, but the majority rejected the finding that the failure to establish a litigation hold amounted to gross negligence per se, and reviewing the facts found only simple negligence. The majority held that the plaintiff had failed to show that the missing information was relevant, and struck the trial adverse inference sanction. The majority also noted its view that the adverse inference charge was so strong as to amount to summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals held that the record supported the Appellate Division conclusion of simple negligence. Rejecting the idea that the failure to institute a litigation hold, or some other factor, would lead to a per se finding of gross negligence, the Court agreed with the Appellate Division majority that all of the facts led to a determination of simple negligence. It did not, however, agree with the Appellate Division as to the sanction. It found that the majority had ignored the plaintiff’s arguments as to relevance. The Court remitted the matter to Supreme Court for further findings as to relevance.

There was a two-judge dissent, which would have found gross negligence. The dissent noted that the Court’s opinion fails to define “gross negligence,” and would have adopted the standard of the failure to exercise even slight care.

Lawrence v North Country Animal Control, 133 A.D.3d 932 [3rd Dept., 2015]

The question presented here is whether there is a path to relief from a conditional disclosure order where the direction to disclose is not objected to, but where the conditional penalty seems excessive. The answer from the Appellate Division is that there is no immediate avenue of relief. If the conditional order is not complied with, the penalty will become absolute, and the path to relief will be a motion to vacate the conditional order.

The plaintiffs here alleged that they had adopted a dog from the defendant animal shelter, that in doing so they relied on the defendants’ misrepresentations concerning the nature and history of the dog, that the dog had repeatedly attacked them, and that they had returned the dog to the defendants. The defendants had sent the dog to a rescue shelter in Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs wanted the dog produced for a behavioral examination, which would bear on the defendants’ knowledge of its vicious propensities. Supreme Court ordered the defendants to produce the dog, adding that if the dog were not produced, they would be precluded from offering evidence that they did not know that the dog was dangerous and vicious when they sold him to the plaintiffs, and any defense of lack of knowledge would be stricken from their answer. How the animal’s behavior, four years after the incidents complained of, would prove the what the defendants knew at the time, is not set forth in the opinion. Nevertheless, on appeal the defendants did not challenge the relevance of the examination, or challenge the direction to produce it. They limited their appeal to the severity of the conditional penalty.

Note the severity of the conditional sanction. The burden of proof on the issue of notice of vicious propensities at trial will be on the plaintiff. Striking any defense on this issue is tantamount to resolving the issue in the plaintiffs’ favor. In considering the appropriate penalty for what amounts to spoliation of evidence, the dispositive consideration is the extent to which the party demanding disclosure has been prejudiced. (Compare, Scordo v Costco Wholesale Corp., 77 AD3d 725 [2d Dept., 2010]; and Shayovich v 800 Ocean Parkway Apt. Corp., 77 AD3d 814 [2d Dept., 2010].) Can it really be said that the failure to produce the dog has prevented the plaintiffs from proving notice of vicious propensities? It certainly would seem that, should the defendants prove unable to retrieve the dog from the rescue shelter, they would have a legitimate argument that the sanctions in the conditional order are disproportionate to the prejudice caused.

The defendants’ appeal was limited to the sanctions in the conditional order. The Appellate Division held that the only avenue of redress will be a motion to vacate the order, supported by proof of a reasonable excuse for the failure to comply with the order and of a meritorious defense. Even if the excuse is insufficient, should the defendants be deprived of their opportunity to argue that the sanction is excessive? If the court below had determined that the failure to produce the dog was willful, and had decided to impose sanctions under CPLR 3126 absolutely instead of conditionally, the defendants would have been allowed to argue for a lesser sanction. Why should they lose that opportunity when the order imposing sanctions was conditional?