Articles Posted in Negligent Supervision

I’ve been settling my New York personal injury cases here in the Syracuse area for what some of my colleagues see as larger than normal numbers.  It seems I don’t have to try as many cases these days because the insurance carriers want to pay me to go away before we get to trial.  My “secret weapon”?  The “Rules of the Road” technique to case preparation.

Here’s a litmus test for picking a New York personal injury lawyer:  Ask your would-be lawyer whether he or she uses the “Rules of the Road” technique from the start of litigation through trial.  If he or she looks bewildered, run away.  The best personal injury attorneys in New York and all throughout these United States use it from day one in their case preparation.

The method was devised, or at least perfected, by the team of Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone.  You can get their book here. (I am not affiliated with them and do not get commissions from sales of the book).

As a New York personal injury lawyer (serving mostly the Syracuse and Central New York areas), I have pretty strong opinions about so-called “tort reform” (which we personal injury lawyers call “tort deform”):  I’m against it. Generally, tort reform is just a power-play by big business, the chamber of commerce and insurance companies to get a free pass to act negligently and injure people without having to pay the price.  The “price” of their negligence is shifted to the people who can least afford it:  Their injured victims.

But I agree partially with the corporate/insurance lobby’s newest call to arms:   They want immunity from coronavirus tort lawsuits for businesses that open up to the public.  I agree that restaurants, gyms, and retail stores should get some kind of immunity. Total immunity, no, but rather “qualified” immunity.  I’ll explain what I mean further down.

But first, why would a New York personal injury lawyer like me be in favor of a form of personal injury lawsuit protection for certain businesses?  Because I want America to get back on its feet. This damn virus has slammed with particular vigor at our retailers and restaurants.  Some will never reopen.  Those that will are going to need some help.   Our restaurants and retail stores are like a boxer who has been felled by a near knockout punch.  We need to allow him to get back up on his feet before we can engage him in more fighting.  Otherwise, we could kill him. (For a contrary view, read here).

What 3 things do Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein all have in common?  Answer: They are (1) rich (2) powerful (3) sex offenders.  Some might want to add Donald Trump or Bill Clinton to the list, but let’s stay clear of politics.

The truth is that many powerful men are sexual predators.  But so too are many not-powerful men.  In fact, poor men may be even more prone to committing sexual assaults.  That’s because, in the words of Janice Joplin, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”.  The guys at the top of society’s pyramid have a lot to lose.  It’s a long fall to the bottom.  The guy who is already down low has nowhere to fall.

Then again, maybe sexual assaults have nothing to do with money.  When I went to college in the 70’s many feminists embraced this adage:  “All men are pigs”.  I think this a very unfair statement.   I mean unfair to pigs.  As far as I know, pigs don’t rape and harass their mates.

Fraternity hazing stories are legendary for their outrageous silliness and, unfortunately, their sometimes tragic outcomes. Pledges are sometimes required to consume large quantities of alcohol, do embarrassing and humiliating things in public, face harsh deprivations, weather inclemency, or paddle beatings.

This topic is of interest to me now that my own kid is off to college this year. And he wants to join a fraternity. Am I worried about hazing? You bet.

I don’t have too look far to find stories that make me lose sleep. Cornell University, right down the road from my office in Auburn, New York, has had its share of hazing tragedies. In 2011, for example, some pledges were blindfolded and bound at the wrists and ankles. They were then driven to a town house somewhere on campus where they were drilled with Fraternity’s history trivia questions. A wrong answer triggered forced shots of vodka. One of the pledges – who seems to have been a poor Fraternity historian — passed out, was loaded into the back seat of a car, and brought back to the Frat house where he was dumped on a couch to “sleep it off”. The next morning the cleaning crew found him dead, choked on his own vomit.

A new case demonstrates how tough it is to sue for kids’ sports injuries.

Normally a participant in a sport – even a child – assumes the risks inherent in the sport and therefore can’t sue to recover for injuries. There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, You don’t “assume the risk” of a danger you would not normally expect to find in the sport (example: a puddle on an indoor basketball court).

So here’s a summary of that new case: In Cvijenovich v Beacon Kids Wrestling Club, a child wrestler’s opponent suddenly did “an illegal or unreasonably dangerous wrestling move” causing him injury. An illegal or dangerous move like this is not covered by the “assumption of risk” doctrine because no one joins a wrestling club with the expectation that illegal, dangerous moves will be used. Participants assume the risk only of legal moves.

The Syracuse Post Standard published a story today titled, “How the city of Syracuse hired a registered sex offender“. When I first glanced at the title, I thought — “hmm, there could be some liability here”. I was thinking that perhaps the City had unwittingly hired a registered sex offender to work around kids and the guy had raped or abused one of them. But that’s not what happened.

Here’s what did happen. Three years after the City of Syracuse hired a garbage collector, he was indicted for sodomizing a boy (not on-the-job, though). When the City hired the guy, the City had not checked his criminal history, nor New York’s sex offender registry. If the City had done so , it would have turned up several criminal convictions, including one for sodomizing a 15-year old boy, which is in fact just about the same thing he is again being accused of.

The City makes no apologies, nor should it, in my opinion. The City’s policy, which makes sense to me, is to perform criminal background and sex registry checks only for sensitive job hiring positions, like camp counselors, summer park staff, firefighters, police, etc. In fact, for jobs like garbage collecting, the City often knowingly hires ex-cons. The City feels, and I agree, that someone has to give these guys a way to make a living, and a second chance in life. Hiring ex-cons keeps them off the Syracuse “streets” where, without a job or a penny in their pocket, they are likely to commit more crimes.

Yesterday I blogged about whether a “governmental immunity ” or “sovereign immunity” defense would bar a claim by child sex abuse victims against the State University of New York (“SUNY”) if something like what happened at Penn State (State university football coach sexually abuses children on campus) happened in New York at SUNY Geneseo, or SUNY Albany, or SUNY Cortland, etc. I concluded that those defenses generally would not be applicable in New York. But unfortunately, unlike in Pennsylvania, another defense would likely prevail in New York: The statute of limitations.

Pennsylvania, unlike New York, has extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims until they reach age 30. From news reports, it seems that all the Penn State child sexual abuse victims are still under 30 years old. So they can, and probably will, be able to sue Penn State for compensation, though on the very same facts, they would not be able to do so in New York

In New York, there is no specific statute of limitations for civil cases based on child sexual abuse claims. The child victim must rely instead on traditional statutes of limitations for assault (by the perpetrator) and negligence (by the employer of the perpetrator or owner of the building where it happened). In New York, the statute of limitations for assault is one year, and for negligence it is three years.

Like everyone else, I have been following the “Happy Valley” Penn State child sexual assault scandal with disgust, awe, shock and dismay. But unlike everyone else, I am also thinking, as I read, who I would sue, for how much, and under what legal theories.

Although I am admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania, I have never handled a case there. My practice is limited to New York personal injury cases, and particularly to cases in Central and Western New York State. So I was surprised to read that some PA lawyers saw obstacles under Pennsylvania law to a lawsuit against Penn State because of the doctrine of “sovereign immunity”. Penn State would, of course, be the principle target of my lawsuit because of its deep pockets. The lawsuits brought against the rapist/sexual predator, Sandusky, or any of the individual coaches, such as Joe Paterno, would quickly deplete all their assets, leaving the plaintiffs under-compensated. There are at least eight victims, and probably a lot more will be stepping forward, which in my mind equates to many, many millions of dollars in lawsuit recovery.

In New York, a suit against a State University for something like this would not trigger a viable sovereign or governmental immunity defense. That’s because New York law distinguishes between the State’s traditional governmental role (such as providing police protection) and non-traditional roles the State has assumed over time, such as owning and running a university. Generally, the State can raise the governmental immunity defense only against tort lawsuits for the former, not the latter.

In New York State, schools are legally responsible for preventing their students, at least while they are at school, from harming each other. This includes preventing school injuries caused by horseplay and avoidable accidents, but also intentional harm students might inflict on each other through assaults, harassment or bullying. School teachers and administrators cannot stand idly by while some students assault, harass, threaten, taunt or bully others. The school has a legal duty to take reasonable measures to make its school safe for its students. When it comes to bullying, if a school does not have rules in place to deal with such behavior, or if it fails to follow these rules, the student-victim can bring a lawsuit against the school for money damages under a legal theory of “negligent supervision”.

School bullying was in the news a lot this week. The saddest story, and the one to catch all the national news, was about an Irish immigrant girl at a school in Massachusetts who was so relentlessly bullied that it drove her to commit suicide. The girl had been the recipient of a barrage of assaults, threats, and taunting for months. The local district attorney has charged 9 fellow students with crimes that led to the suicide, including stalking, criminal harassment and violation of civil rights.

There is plenty of blame blame to go around, though, and certainly the school deserves a lot of it. The school knew about the bullying. A psychologist says she consulted with school administrators months before the 15-year-old hanged herself. But they did nothing to stop the bullying. Watch for a lawsuit from the dead girl’s parents — I’ll bet it’s in the works, as well it should be.

Yesterday, as I have done just about every Wednesday this winter (and for the past few winters), I took a van full of Boys & Girls Club kids to the Geneva, New York municipal ice rink for a skate. I pick them up at the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva at 6:30, we skate till 8:15, and then I drive them home. I finish up about 9:00. I can pack about 11 kids in the large van. The kids, ages 5 through about 11, love it. These are kids who otherwise would never get a chance to skate. Most of them don’t have transportation to the rink. When Spring comes along, I take the same kids to the YMCA swimming pool. Otherwise, they wouldn’t learn to swim.

Here’s my law blog question for the day: What is my liability exposure as a volunteer? Does the law cut me any slack for being a good guy, or am I just as liable as anyone else if I accidently crash the van, or fail to properly supervise the kids, and cause them to get injured? If some of these kids and their parents were to bring a New York personal injury lawsuit against me for negligent driving or negligent supervision, what would happen to me?

I hate to admit it, but I am exposing myself to a lawsuit. The law in New York cuts me no slack at all. If I voluntarily agree to take these kids out and I negligently allow harm to befall them, their personal injury lawsuits against me will be valid. The fact that I was trying to give these kids a better life won’t count for squat!

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