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Commentary: Court erases commuter’s $7.7M slip-and-fall verdict

A New Jersey court on Thursday overturned a $7.7 million award to a commuter who slipped on wet floor mats at a train station outside New York City, rejecting the notion that the regional transit authority had a heightened duty of care.

“Because plaintiff was injured while walking through a corridor and not while riding in or embarking or debarking from a train, the trial judge erred when he instructed the jury that the Port Authority owed plaintiff the duty to ‘use the utmost caution to protect their passengers,’” wrote New Jersey Appellate Division Judge Clarkson S. Fisher Jr. in Mandal v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In 2007, Dr. Soma Mandal lived in New Jersey and commuted to her job as an internist at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan. At around 7 a.m. on March 18, Mandal arrived at Pavonia Station in Jersey City to take a train to work. The trains that service Pavonia Station are operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Trans-Hudson (PATH) rail system.

Because of the typical March rain and snow, maintenance workers at the station had placed black mats with grooved surfaces on the tiled ramps leading down to the boarding platforms from street-level. According to Mandal, as she was walking down one of these ramps to catch her train, her right foot slipped on a wet mat, causing her to fall and break her right elbow.

Alleging her medical career was derailed because she lost the full use of her right arm, Mandal filed a negligence action in New Jersey state court against the Port Authority and the company that provided maintenance services at the station, Modern Facilities Services Inc.

After a 12-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mandal, finding the Port Authority 75 percent liable and Modern 25 percent liable. The jury awarded Mandal more than $7.2 million, including $4.1 million for past and future lost earnings, and $3 million for pain and suffering. Prejudgment interest brought the final judgment to more than $7.7 million.

But that is all for naught because Thursday the New Jersey Appellate granted the Port Authority and Modern a new trial.

The problem, as the court saw it, was that the trial judge instructing the jury that the Port Authority was a “common carrier” that owed those who used Pavonia Station a greater duty of care than other property owners.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Fisher said the common-carrier standard of care did not apply in this case because of the location of Mandal’s fall:

The Port Authority owed plaintiff a standard of care commensurate with the nature of the occurrence. If plaintiff was injured while riding a train or while embarking or disembarking from a train, the common-carrier standard of care might arguably apply. But, as here, when patrons are in a train station on their way to or from a platform, the Port Authority’s role is that of an occupier of land and the less onerous standard of care applicable to that undertaking governed the Port Authority’s liability here.

One person particularly dismayed by the turn of events is Mandal’s attorney, Christopher W. Hager.

A partner with Niedweske Barber Hager in Morristown,  N.J., Hager told The Newark Star-Ledger that the appellate court had ignored more than a century of established law protecting railroad passengers.

The bet here is that the New Jersey Supreme will get a chance to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

A version of this column originally appeared in Lawyers USA, sister publication to The Daily Record.