Liability Of Landowners When The Lights Go Out

What is the duty of a landowner to provide illumination when there is a blackout? The Second Department issued a somewhat confusing decision on this question last week in Solan v Great Neck Union Free School Dist., 2007 NY Slip Op 06861.

In that case, the plaintiff arrived at the parking lot of the Great Neck North High School minutes after a power failure had extinguished the lights illuminating the parking lot. Although the parking lot was in total darkness, the plaintiff observed some lights inside the school. The school board meeting which the plaintiff intended to attend had been moved to an auditorium which had lights powered by a generator. In attempting to cross the parking lot to enter the school, the plaintiff tripped and fell over a cement parking space divider, which she was unable to see because of the darkness, sustaining personal injuries.

In her action against the School, the plaintiff claimed that the School had a duty to supply backup power to the parking lot lights to ensure continued illumination of the lot during a power outage. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff finding the School 90% at fault and the plaintiff 10% at fault. However, the trial court granted the school’s verdict to set aside the verdict and dismissed the complaint.

The Second Department affirmed. It stated:

A landowner’s duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including providing a safe means of ingress and egress, does not include a duty to have an uninterrupted power source for parking lot lights in the event of a power outage.

However, in the next sentence the Court went on to say:

The power outage did not relieve the defendant of its duty to address the dangerous condition created by the loss of power when the otherwise open and obvious cement divider was obscured from view by darkness.

I’m not sure how these two statements are consistent (unless the Court meant that the School was required to cure the dangerous condition by moving the cement dividers. But either the School had a duty to provide illumination or it didn’t). In any event, the Court went on to hold that there was no valid line of reasoning nor permissible inferences to be drawn from the evidence which could lead a rational person to the conclusion that the School had a reasonable time to address the darkness in the parking lot in the matter of minutes between the power outage and the plaintiff’s fall.

So presumably the School did have a duty to provide illumination to the parking lot but only after some period of time to address the issue.

Of course the irony is that if the School was required to provide illumination to the parking lot at some point, this would most likely involve the use of portable generators along with their power cords strewn across the parking lot. Would this not increase the risk of tripping accidents significantly? Is it wise to require a duty that increases the risk of injury? Its a Blackout. How did we exist before electricity? What is more onerous – requiring the School to put up portable generators, or requiring pedestrians to walk a little more carefully, or perhaps carry a flashlight in their cars?  Thus, while I agree with the Court’s result, I think it would have been better if the Court had just stuck with its statement that a landowner does not have a duty to provide an uninterrupted power source for parking lot lights in the event of a power outage.

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