The New Jersey appeals court overturned a $7.7 million personal injury award granted to a local commuter, ruling that the standard of care was lower for commuters in the train station. The appeals court cited the trial judge's incorrect jury instructions in making their decision. New Jersey personal injury lawyers say that the case sets a precedent for commuters and the responsibility the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has to ensure safety in their facilities.
In Mandal v. Port Authority, A-100-10, the state appeals court ruled that the Port Authority's required level of care was dependent on the location in which the accident occurred. In March 2007, Dr. Soma Mandal fell in the north corridor of the Pavonia-Newport PATH Station in Jersey City. She landed face down on the corridor floor, and suffered fractures to her dominant right arm and elbow. Due to the rain and snow the day before, the sloping floor of the hallway was lined with mats, which Mandal claimed were slippery, causing her to fall. After multiple surgeries, and the placement of screws and metal plates in her arm, Mandal continued to complain of numbness, pain, and loss of motion that affected her ability to work. She claimed that, due to the severe nature of her pain, she had to quit her job at NYU. Mandal filed a personal injury lawsuit against the Port Authority and the station's cleaning company, Modern Facilities Service.
Before the lawsuit went to trial two years later, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Hector Velazquez issued a ruling holding Port Authority to a higher standard of care, and Mandal's trial judge repeated this decision, instructing the jury to "apply the heightened ‘utmost caution' standard imposed on common carriers." The jury awarded Mandal more than $4 million for lost wages, $3 million for pain and suffering, and over $100,000 for past and future expenses incurred as a result of her injuries.
But in a decision last month, the state appeals court returned 75 percent of Mandal's award to the Port Authority and 25 percent to Modern Facilities. Entities such as the Port Authority have different duties of care for a commuter in the train station than a commuter riding the train. "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 [are held to] the less onerous standard of care," the court said. Thus, the judge's instruction was inaccurate, and likely had an impact on the jury's decision.
Mandal's lawsuits against the Port Authority and Modern Facilities will be retried in court. The Appellate Court's opinion raised other issues that will need to be addressed at the retrial. Mandal's original trial included testimony from Gregory Baumer, a man from Texas who claimed to have fallen on a mat in the same hallway a day prior to Mandal's fall. Baumer claimed that the mat's design enabled slippery conditions that caused his—and Mandal's—fall. The appellate court ruled that this lay opinion should be excluded at the retrial, if the defendants objected to it.
The personal injury attorneys at New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA represent anyone who has suffered injuries or loss of livelihood and lifestyle from a company's negligence or failure to take proper care.