At issue in Bingham v New York City Tr. Auth., 2007 NY Slip Op 01337, was whether the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) could be held liable for a subway passenger's injury that occurred when her pants caughts on a metal strip protruding from a stairway, causing her to fall down a flight of stairs that was not owned by the transit authority. The NYCTA argued that it was not liable since the stairway was not utilized exclusively for access to the subway, while the plaintiff argued that since the stairway was used primarily as a means to access the subway, the NYCTA was liable.
The New York Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff, stating:
Courts have long recognized that the duty of care imposed on a common carrier with respect to its passengers requires not only that it keep the transportation vehicle safe, but also that it maintain a safe means of ingress and egress for the use of its passengers...This duty has been applied to those areas owned and maintained by others if "constantly and notoriously" used by passengers as means of approach...This rule, as enunciated in Schlessinger, has been recognized not only in New York...but also in other jurisdictions...
Where, as here, a stairwell or approach is primarily used as a means of access to and egress from the common carrier, that carrier has a duty to exercise reasonable care to see that such means of approach remain in a safe condition or, where appropriate, to take such precautions or give such warnings as would protect those using such area against unforeseen danger. Whether those means of ingress or egress are used primarily for that purpose would generally be a question of fact...
Thus, even if the responsibility to maintain the stairway resides in another entity, defendants may not avoid their responsibility "to at least provide against injury to its passengers by erecting such barricades, or giving such warning, as [would] guard against accidents"... (Internal citations omitted).
Judge Graffeo dissented, stating that:
Beyond its incompatibility with modern trends, the majority rule is troubling because it results in a party being held liable for a condition that it did not create and lacks the power to ameliorate. Where the Transit Authority does not own, occupy or control property, it is not well-positioned to ensure that the property is free of hazardous conditions. A common carrier has no greater right than any other neighbor to enter and repair a defective condition on property owned, occupied or controlled by another, or to erect the barriers or warning signs suggested by the majority. The majority's rule will undoubtedly prove difficult to apply fairly...
(T)he duty to maintain embraced by the majority turns on an amorphous standard: whether the property was used "primarily" by subway patrons at the time of the accident. Under this standard, a duty can come into and out of existence depending on circumstances outside a common carrier's control, such as the number and type of businesses that may also attract persons who walk across the property in question.
Judge Graffeo raises a good point in regard to the difficulty that this holding presents in determining when a particular means of ingress and egress is "primarily" used to access a common carrier. How the courts will interpret that standard remains to be seen. While the Court specifically stated that it "generally" presented an issue of fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see lower courts granting summary judgment on that basis nonetheless.
Eric Turkewitz over at the New York Personal Injury Law Blog also posted about this case here.