A wrongful death case in New York City could hold pedestrians responsible for construction failures and city code enforcement violations. As the New York Daily News reports, in December of last year, a 60-year-old woman died when falling debris from a nearby construction project struck her in the head. Her widower subsequently filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city that has reached the Manhattan Supreme Court.
The construction project in question had apparently received two code violations for loose terra cotta above 15 floors high. The builders reportedly received a third violation just this summer, showing that they had still not addressed the problem long after the tragic accident. The widower claims that the city’s failure to properly enforce known code violations makes the city liable. He claims that the city additionally failed to provide adequate protections to the public, such as a covered walkway.
Just this month, the city Law Department responded by claiming that pedestrians should know the risks involved in walking on the sidewalk and are legally responsible to exercise due care. In other words, she should have anticipated the incident and taken measures to protect herself. Some journalists have speculated as to what measures the city implies.
As the New York State Bar explains, sovereign immunity doctrine protects public entities from the same degree of liability that private citizens carry. While most states use this as protection from ordinary negligence lawsuits, New York has waived most of its sovereign immunity.
This leaves the city open to wrongful death claims if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the city’s negligence contributed proximate cause to the incident. In other words, if the city is in any degree responsible for the falling debris, the plaintiff may pursue damages.
New York is a comparative negligence state, meaning that even if a plaintiff is partly responsible for the accident, he or she remains eligible for damages reduced in proportion to his or her fault. For example, if the Manhattan woman was 15% at fault for the incident, her family could still collect 75% of the total damages a court calculates.
This means that the city will need to demonstrate that the woman was 100% to blame for her death to avoid liability. If the Supreme Court rules in their favor, this could have severe consequences for pedestrians in the city.