Dallis v. NJ Transit Corp., Civil Action No. 17-407

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtHon. Joseph H. Rodriguez UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
PartiesIRENE DALLIS, Plaintiff, v. NJ Transit Corporation, Amtrak Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 17-407
Decision Date24 June 2021

IRENE DALLIS, Plaintiff,
NJ Transit Corporation, Amtrak Defendants.

Civil Action No. 17-407


June 24, 2021


This matter comes before the Court on Defendant New Jersey Transit Corporation's ("NJ Transit") Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff Irene Dallis' ("Plaintiff") claims for negligence. After reviewing the written submissions of the parties and considering the arguments advanced during the October 20, 2020 hearing, the Court has concluded, for the reasons set forth below, that NJ Transit's Motion will be GRANTED.

I. Background

On December 13, 2014, Plaintiff, on her way to board a NJ Transit Train, fell while exiting an elevator at New York Penn Station ("NYPS"). Dkt. 75-17 at 1. It is undisputed that the fall occurred on Elevator Number 7 ("Elevator 7") on the passenger platform between Tracks 13 and 14, that it occurred because the elevator floor was uneven with the passenger platform floor, and that it occurred on property not owned or maintained by NJ Transit. Id. at 1-2; Dkt. 77-2 at 3, 5. As to this last point, the parties agree that co-defendant Amtrak is the owner of NYPS and that NJ Transit is merely a lessee with respect to a defined portion of the station—a portion which does not include

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Elevator 7 or Tracks 13 and 14.1 Dkt. 75-17 at 1; Dkt. 77-2 at 3. Accordingly, despite Plaintiff being on her way to board a NJ Transit Train, the fall did not occur on NJ Transit's leased property. It is on this basis, substantively, that NJ Transit files its Motion, arguing that when a party does not own or control a property, it cannot be liable for an injury allegedly caused by a dangerous condition of that property. Dkt. 75-17 at 1.

Despite its lack of ownership and contractual obligation, however, Plaintiff maintains that NJ Transit should be liable for her injuries. She testifies that NJ Transit—ostensibly through a loudspeaker system—directed her to use Elevator 7 to get to her train's boarding platform. Dkt. 75-9 at 18. She also asserts that NJ Transit used Tracks 13 and 14 to board its trains. Dkt. 17-1 at 1. In support of this latter proposition, Plaintiff submits a series of photographs at Tracks 13 and 14, which show a sign with the words "New Jersey" accompanying an arrow symbol. Dkt. 75-6. Based on these alleged facts, Plaintiff concludes that the area of the accident was "unquestionably under the control of NJ Transit," making summary judgment inappropriate. Dkt. 77-2 at 5.

It is important to note, however, that NJ Transit also seeks summary judgment on procedural grounds. Dkt. 75-17 at 1. In particular, it asserts that Plaintiff did not file a timely notice of claim or move for leave to file a late notice of claim as required by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act ("NJTCA"). Id. Plaintiff has not contested this point in any of its filings. Thus, the issues on this motion are whether Plaintiff's failure to file a notice of tort claim is fatal to her cause of action and, if not, whether liability attaches to NJ Transit as a result of its alleged use of Elevator 7 and Tracks 13 and 14.

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II. Legal Standard

A court will grant summary judgment "if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Pearson v. Component Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A movant can satisfy these criteria by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A).

An issue is "genuine" if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party meets this burden, the nonmoving party then must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F. Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. In doing this, the "nonmoving party may

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not 'rest upon mere allegations, general denials or . . . vague statements.'" Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991)). Indeed,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. That is, the movant can support the assertion that a fact cannot be genuinely disputed by showing that "an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the [alleged dispute of] fact." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2).

In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

III. Discussion

A. Lack of Notice

As an initial matter, the Court must determine whether Plaintiff's claims are barred by the NJTCA. The NJTCA allows claimants to circumvent the doctrine of sovereign immunity by providing a limited measure of relief against the state, public employees, and public entities. See N.J.S.A. 59:1-2. At the same time, however, it sets forth certain procedural requirements that must be met prior to filing a suit for damages. § 59:8-3. Notice is one such requirement whereby claimants bringing a tort

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claim against a "local public entity" must "file [notice of] the claim with the public entity within 90 days of accrual of the claim" or, if not, "file a late notice of claim . . . within one year after the accrual of [the] claim." N.J. Stat. Ann. § 59:1-1 et seq. Failure to properly serve notice of a claim forever bars a claimant from recovering against that public entity. § 59:8-8; see also Kamienski v. Attorney General New Jersey, No. 11-3056, 2012 WL 4034236, at *6 (D.N.J. 2012).

The statute defines a "local public entity" as "a public entity other than the State." § 59:8-2. Being created by the New Jersey Public Transportation Act of 1979, codified at N.J.S.A. § 27:25-1 et seq., NJ Transit is such an entity. Plaintiff was therefore required to comply with NJTCA's procedural requirements in bringing this suit. On every front, however, she has not done so. The cause of action accrued on the date of the alleged injury, December 13, 2014. As such, Plaintiff's notice of claim was due on March 13, 2015 and her late notice of claim was due on December 13, 2015. Plaintiff does not contest failing to meet either of these deadlines. Instead, she opts to ignore the NJTCA throughout her filings, persistently maintaining that NJ Transit's duty-based arguments are the "only basis" for summary judgment. Dkt. 77-2 at 1-2.

Plaintiff's only opposition to NJTCA's notice requirements comes from a choice of law argument, where she asserts that New York law, as opposed to New Jersey, governs this dispute. However, "[u]nder New Jersey's choice-of-law rules, a court...

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