In a closely watched decision, the Second Judicial Department reversed a surprising ruling by the Supreme Court of Queens County which denied governmental immunity to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. If allowed to stand the lower court decision would have had significant negative implications for public entities engaged in governmental functions. WSHB partner and accomplished trial attorney, Brian Colistra, successfully argued the appeal, securing a crucial victory for a client with much to lose as they operate the Port of New York and New Jersey, as well as the airports, bridges, tunnels, and bus terminals in the metro region.

The case centered on a forklift accident at Cargo Airport Services (CAS) facility at John F. Kennedy Airport, where an employee was severely injured when he was struck by colleague operating a forklift in reverse. Initially, the lower court denied the shield of governmental immunity, finding that the Port Authority, in enacting and enforcing certain rules and regulations on the airport property—such as issuing registration plates and conducting annual inspections of forklifts—were acting in its role as a landlord, rather than a governmental entity exercising its discretionary powers for public safety.

Why this Case is Important

The Second Department's ruling, overturning the lower court decision, and finding that the Port Authority was exercising its police powers to provide for public safety, provided a much-needed clarification on the scope of governmental immunity. The court aptly recognized that the Port Authority's functions transcended mere landlord-tenant relations. Instead, they affirmed that the issuance of PONYA plates and inspection protocols were exercises of the Port Authority's police power, aimed at safeguarding public welfare rather than fulfilling landlord obligations.

Crucially, the court's decision in Strassburger v. Unicarriers Insurance Corporation, No. 03441 (2020), elucidated that these actions did not establish a special duty toward the plaintiff, which would have undermined any claim to governmental immunity. By affirming the Port Authority's quasi-governmental status, and recognizing their right and duty to provide for the safety of the general public in and on their many holdings, the Second Department underscored the broader public policy considerations at play.

This ruling sets a vital precedent, emphasizing the paramount importance of governmental immunity in ensuring effective governance and public safety. By shielding quasi-governmental entities like the Port Authority from liability to individuals to whom they owe no special duty, the legal framework preserves their ability to make crucial decisions in the interest of public welfare without fear of crippling litigation.

Moreover, the decision reaffirms the distinction between governmental functions and proprietary actions, clarifying that activities undertaken in the pursuit of public safety fall squarely within the realm of governmental discretion. This delineation is essential in balancing the interests of individuals seeking redress with the broader imperatives of efficient governance and public welfare.

"In essence, the Second Department's ruling represents a significant victory for the Port Authority and similar quasi-governmental entities, reaffirming their entitlement to governmental immunity while upholding robust standards of public safety," stated lead counsel and partner, Brian Colistra. "As this case demonstrates, the judiciary plays a pivotal role in delineating the boundaries of governmental authority, ensuring a delicate balance between accountability and effective governance in the interest of the public good."

About Brian Colistra

Brian Colistra has over two decades of experience and practices primarily out of the WSHB Westport office. He is renowned internationally for his adept handling of complex products liability and aviation matters. His career is also marked by his exceptional trial skills and extensive experience in civil practice, reflected in his oversight of more than 100 bench and jury trials as lead trial counsel to verdict.

Brian's exceptional trial advocacy has garnered professional acclaim, including recognition by Connecticut's Lawyers of Distinction. His notable achievements encompass the defense of airport entities, aircraft manufacturers, and industry vendors in intricate and high-stakes aircraft crash cases, as well as a wide range of claims and suits arising from accidents occurring on airport property..

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