Garrett v. Holiday Inns, Inc.

Decision Date23 February 1983
Citation58 N.Y.2d 253,460 N.Y.S.2d 774,447 N.E.2d 717
Parties, 447 N.E.2d 717 Timothy S. GARRETT, Individually and as Limited Administrator of the Estate of Nancy J. Garrett, Deceased, Plaintiff, v. HOLIDAY INNS, INC., et al., Appellants, et al., Defendants, and Town of Greece, Respondent. (Four Main Actions and 20 Third-Party Actions.)
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
OPINION OF THE COURT

WACHTLER, Judge.

Appellants, as third-party plaintiffs in these actions, seek to hold a municipality proportionately liable to the extent that its negligent conduct contributed to the occurren of a motel fire, for which appellants may be cast in damages to plaintiff motel guests and their representatives. Two questions are presented for our determination. First, despite the absence of any actionable duty owed by a third party directly to the injured plaintiffs, may the third party be held liable for a proportionate share of the damages, on the basis of a breach of duty to those who must respond directly in damages to plaintiffs? If the absence of a duty to plaintiffs is no bar to such a claim, a second issue is whether appellants have sufficiently alleged a special duty on the part of the municipality, the breach of which will render it liable to appellants for having negligently exposed them to such potential tort liability.

As a result of an extensive fire at the Holiday Inn in the Town of Greece, several actions for wrongful death, personal injuries and property damage were brought by or on behalf of motel guests. Named as defendants were the Holiday Inns, Inc., which operated the motel pursuant to a lease; the corporation which undertook the development and construction of the motel, its principals and its successors; the present and previous owners of the premises; and the Town of Greece. The theory of negligence pleaded against the town was predicated on its failure to require the motel owners to comply with applicable fire and safety laws and its failure to inspect the construction of the motel adequately. Because plaintiffs had, in this regard, alleged no more than a violation of a general duty owed by the town to the public at large, the complaints against the town were held insufficient to state a cause of action and were therefore dismissed (Garrett v. Town of Greece, 78 A.D.2d 773, 433 N.Y.S.2d 637, affd. on opn. below 55 N.Y.2d 774, 447 N.Y.S.2d 246, 431 N.E.2d 971).

Thereafter, the remaining defendants/third-party plaintiffs sought to implead the Town of Greece, alleging that, to the extent the several plaintiffs' damages were caused or exacerbated by the town's wrongful conduct, it is liable to third-party plaintiffs for "contribution or indemnification". The town's liability is based on an alleged breach of a special duty owing third-party plaintiffs in that it: (1) permitted alterations in the originally approved building plans which did not comply with applicable fire and safety laws, codes and regulations; (2) issued a certificate occupancy representing that the building was safe and in compliance with fire and safety laws, notwithstanding the existing, obvious violations of those laws; and (3) thereafter negligently failed to uncover the violations upon inspection.

The town's motions to dismiss the third-party complaints 1 for failure to state a cause of action were denied by Special Term. The Appellate Division reversed and granted the motions, holding that the town may not be liable to any extent to third-party plaintiffs in the absence of a duty owed to plaintiffs. Holiday Inn and the present and previous owners of the motel have appealed to this court. 2 There should be a modification of the order of the Appellate Division.

The issue is whether the town, having been held to owe no duty to plaintiff motel guests under the circumstances of this case can nevertheless be held proportionately liable to the owners and lessee operator of the motel for its breach of an independent duty owing these parties. Generally, apportionment rights among wrongdoers arise when "two or more tort-feasors share in responsibility for an injury, in violation of duties they respectively owed to the injured person" (Smith v. Sapienza, 52 N.Y.2d 82, 87, 436 N.Y.S.2d 236, 417 N.E.2d 530; Holodook v. Spencer, 36 N.Y.2d 35, 364 N.Y.S.2d 859, 324 N.E.2d 338; Rogers v. Dorchester Assoc., 32 N.Y.2d 553, 347 N.Y.S.2d 22, 300 N.E.2d 403). Principles allowing apportionment among tort-feasors reflect the important policy that responsibility for damages to an injured person should be borne by those parties responsible for the injury, in proportion to their respective degrees of fault (Dole v. Dow Chem. Co., 30 N.Y.2d 143, 152, 331 N.Y.S.2d 382, 282 N.E.2d 288). We have recognized that contribution rules ha developed to remedy an injustice to joint tort-feasors, who were permitted no general apportionment rights under prior law (Klinger v. Dudley, 41 N.Y.2d 362, 370, 393 N.Y.S.2d 323, 361 N.E.2d 974).

That being the case, contribution rights on behalf of concurrent wrongdoers have been upheld in numerous circumstances in which the injured person has himself had no right of recovery against a particular third party. Thus, in Dole v. Dow Chem. Co. (supra ), the defendant manufacturer of a chemical alleged to have caused the death of plaintiff's decedent was permitted to assert a contribution claim against the decedent's employer, despite the bar imposed by the Workers' Compensation Law to direct suit by plaintiff against the employer. In Klinger v. Dudley (supra ), we recognized contribution rights in favor of tort-feasors against third parties as to whom plaintiffs had no direct right of recovery due either to their failure to join the third parties as defendants or to some special defense barring recovery.

Of course, the holdings in such cases do not resolve the precise question raised on the present appeal, for those cases involved circumstances in which the third party had no liability to the injured person, in contrast to the absence of a duty owed him. Nevertheless, these cases demonstrate that proportionate liability rights among joint tort-feasors are analytically distinct from the rights and obligations of the parties to the injured person and that the nexus of duty between wrongdoers may exist independently of the respective duties owing a plaintiff. 3

The issue of whether an obligation of proportionate liability can exist on the part of one who owes no duty the plaintiff has been dealt with by this court in the context of parental responsibility for the actions of an infant child. It is well established, under New York law, that a child has no cause of action against his parent for the latter's failure to supervise the child adequately (Holodook v. Spencer, supra ). Because the parent owes no duty to the child in this regard, a tort-feasor who has caused injury to a child may not seek contribution from the parent (id., 36 N.Y.2d at p. 51, 364 N.Y.S.2d 859, 324 N.E.2d 338). Where a parent has entrusted a child with a dangerous instrumentality, however, and has thereby created an unreasonable risk of harm to another, the parent may be cast in damages to the injured third party, even though the child has no comparable cause of action against the parent. This well-recognized duty on the part of a parent to third parties led to this court's holding in Nolechek v. Gesuale, 46 N.Y.2d 332, 413 N.Y.S.2d 340, 385 N.E.2d 1268 quite apart from the general principle that to be held proportionately liable a wrongdoer must owe a duty directly to the injured person.

Nolechek involved an action brought by a father, both individually and as administrator of his son's estate, against a landowner and others for the wrongful death of his son resulting from a motorcycle accident. The complaint alleged that the landowner had negligently permitted a dangerous condition to exist on his property which caused the accident. The landowner interposed a counterclaim against the father, seeking to impose proportionate liability on the father for his wrongful conduct in providing his vision-impaired son with a motorcycle. This court permitted the counterclaim to stand, holding that a tort-feasor cast in damages for injuries to a child may seek proportionate recovery, there termed "contribution", from the parent where the child's injury and the tort-feasor's liability resulted, in part, from negligently entrusti the child with a dangerous instrumentality. Analyzing the question of the duty owed by the father to the landowner as distinct from the duty (or lack thereof) owed by the father to the son, this court concluded that the absence of an actionable duty running from father to son did not prevent the landowner from asserting a claim against the father, based upon an independent duty owed the landowner. The father's duty to protect the landowner from unreasonable risks of harm was deemed to encompass an obligation to prevent foreseeable exposure to potential tort liability for injury to the child.

Nolechek's recognition of the proportionate liability claim notwithstanding the absence of a duty owed directly to the injured person is, we believe, entirely consistent with the policy underlying principles of apportionment and comparative negligence. If an independent obligation can be found on the part of a concurrent wrongdoer to prevent foreseeable harm, he should be held responsible for the portion of the damage attributable to his negligence, despite the fact that the duty violated was not one owing directly to the injured person. Thus if the town owed a duty to appellants to protect them from foreseeable risks of harm, the breach of which has...

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