Strauss v. Belle Realty Co. (N.Y. 1985)

Procedural History: Plaintiff alleged negligence on the part of the landlord and utility for failing to fix or warn about the defective steps and for not providing electricity. Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment against Con Edison to estop it from contesting the charge of gross negligence in connection with the blackout (which had already been determined in a different lawsuit). Con Edison cross-moved for summary judgment, maintaining it had no duty to a noncustomer. The court granted the motion insofar as it sought collateral estoppel regarding gross negligence, and denied Con Ed a cross motion to dismiss, finding a question of fact as to whether it owed the plaintiff a duty of care.

Facts: On July 13, 1977, a failure of defendant’s power system created a blackout in most of New York City. Plaintiff tenant suffered personal injuries in a common area of an apartment building where his landlord had a contractual relationship with the utility. Julius Strauss, 77, resided in an apartment in Queens. Con Ed provided electricity to his apartment and the building’s common areas. As water was supplied by electric pump, plaintiff went into the basement on the second day of the power failure to obtain water, but fell on darkened, defective stairs.

Issue: Did Con Ed owe a duty to plaintiff, whose injuries from a fall on a darkened staircase may have conceivably been foreseeable, but with whom there was no contractual relationship for lighting in the building’s common areas?

Rules: A defendant may be held liable for negligence only when it breaches a duty owed to the plaintiff.

Application: The court finds a responsibility to fix the orbit of duty and to protect against crushing exposure to liability. Even though the event was foreseeable, the court still chooses to limit liability to contractual relationships in the city-wide blackout.

Conclusion: On public policy grounds, Court of Appeals affirms Appellate Division order dismissing complaint against Con Edison. Liability for injuries in a building’s common areas should be limited by the contractual relationship in order to define an orbit of duty that places controllable limits on liability.

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