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Are you afraid of the dark? If so, a case decided by New York State's highest court may give you additional cause for concern. In the case of Gilson v. Metropolitan Opera, Donald Taitt, an elderly patron with Parkinson's disease tardily returned to his balcony seat after an intermission, some ten minutes after the house lights had dimmed and the second act had begun. The plaintiff, Estelle Gilson, in a neighborly effort to facilitate access to the row of seats, rose to allow Mr. Taitt to pass. While traversing the aisle in the darkness, Mr. Taitt lost his balance and fell onto Ms. Gilson causing her to fall down several steps into the balcony railing and injure herself. Ms. Gilson (who suffered a broken wrist and facial fractures) later sued the Metropolitan Opera for negligence in not escorting Taitt back to his seat. At issue was whether the opera house disregarded a "duty of care" in this situation.
Legally-recognized duties can arise under a variety of circumstances, such as within the doctor-patient or attorney-client relationship. A duty can also arise in other contexts such as between a business proprietor and a patron. Generally, when someone enters land or an area under another's control--as when a patron enters into a theatre or opera house--those who own and conduct such businesses owe a duty to their patrons to keep the premises "reasonably" safe.
While the word "reasonable" is somewhat of a nebulous term, New York courts balance a number of factors to determine how it applies to a duty of care. These factors include (but are not limited to): what the parties to the lawsuit and/or society find to be reasonable under the circumstances; how that specific standard would affect the court system (e.g., a standard that would cause a flood of litigation would not likely be imposed); and, whether the duty would impose an unlimited or "insurer-like" liability. Typically, courts are reluctant to impose a duty to police the conduct of others not within that party's control and will usually limit the imposition of such burden to circumstances where the defendant is in the best position to protect others against harm's way.
Ms. Gilson's counsel argued that the opera house had a duty to escort Taitt to his seat on account of the patron's physical condition and the absence of adequate lighting. The Metropolitan Opera countered that such duty would place too high a burden on theater owners and would exceed the standard of reasonableness. The New York Court of Appeals sided with the defendant, noting that the opera house was not in the best position to protect others from the risk of harm posed by Taitt's infirmity. The defendant was granted judgment as a matter of law and, consequently, a jury did not decide the issue of whether the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances.
What is interesting about this case is that the plaintiff cited to the opera-house's internal policies to establish negligence. Specifically, the plaintiff had secured a copy of a document entitled "Performance Staff Rules and Guidelines," which provided that "ticket holders should be escorted to their seats with the aid of flashlights when the House Lights are low, and particularly requested to watch their step." The crux of plaintiff's position was that this internal policy defined the standard of care legally owed to patrons. The Court of Appeals found that these guidelines exceeded the reasonable duty of care, and did not elevate the defendant's legal obligation to its patrons.
One could imagine the chaos that would ensue if establishments were required to escort patrons to their seats in each and every instance. There would be inevitable delays, performance disruptions, increased costs that an event's sponsor would incur to properly implement this policy and police the enforcement of such standard, not to mention the added tension and hostility that such a policy would foster. Though the Honorable George Bundy Smith argued in a dissent that defendant's employees' failure to comply with this set of rules and guidelines should be considered evidence of defendant's failure to exercise reasonable care, the majority found that breach of a self-imposed policy which prescribed a standard that exceeded reasonable care could not be considered. Presumably, an outcome favorable to the plaintiff would discourage the owners of theatres and other establishments from adopting patron-related protections beyond those that were minimally mandated.
Cost and inconvenience notwithstanding, consequences should flow from an employee's disregard of his or her responsibility, particularly when that individual's omission results in a patron's injury. In his dissent, Judge Smith opined that the misconduct or omission should have at least had been a factor in determining whether to impose liability. Seemingly, the violation of a clearly articulated standard would help define the parameters of what was "reasonable" care under the circumstances. And, ultimately, he concluded that the question should have been decided by a jury. We agree.
To read the text of the New York State Court of Appeals's decision in this case, please click on the link that follows: