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Strauss v. Belle Realty Co

     

    Brief Fact Summary.

    After Strauss (Plaintiff) fell on defective stairs in the dark during a blackout caused by a failure in Consolidated Edison’s power system, Plaintiff sued both Belle Realty Co. (Defendant) and Consolidated Edison even though Consolidated Edison’s contract for powering the common area of the building was with Defendant and not Plaintiff.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A defendant is not liable for negligence when it had not duty to the plaintiff.

    Facts.

    Consolidated Edison’s power system in New York City failed and during the ensuing blackout, Plaintiff fell on defective basement stairs in his apartment building. In that building, the common areas were powered by Consolidated Edison through a contract with the Defendant, Plaintiff’s landlord. Plaintiff sued both Defendant and Consolidated Edison for his resulting injuries. Plaintiff claimed that Defendant owed him a duty as landlord to maintain the stairs and that Consolidated Edison owed him a duty to provide electricity. Consolidated Edison defended on the grounds that it owed no duty to Plaintiff, a noncustomer, as its duty was to Defendant for the common areas of the building. The trial court found for Plaintiff and the appellate court reversed. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    Is a defendant liable for negligence when it had no duty to the plaintiff?

    Held.

    (Kaye, J.) No. A defendant is not liable for negligence when it had no duty to the plaintiff. Consolidated Edison did not have a contract with Plaintiff for lighting of the common areas of the apartment building. Courts have routinely held that utility companies are not liable for consequential damages for failure to provide service to noncustomers. These decisions have rested on the need to contain liability to manageable levels by extending the utility’s duty only to foreseeable parties. Allowing recovery in Plaintiff’s case would violate the court’s responsibility to limit the duty owed in order to control the extent of liability. Affirmed.

    Dissent.

    (Meyer, J.) Consolidated Edison should be required to demonstrate that extending liability to noncustomers would have a catastrophic result before the limitation is placed on its duty.

    Discussion.

    In negligence cases, duty is defined as an obligation recognized by law to conform to a particular standard of conduct to another person. In early English law, duty was not required and liability was imposed without much thought to the fault of the defendant. Once an act was found to be wrongful, the actor was liable for any resulting damages.


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