Words Slip, Words Fall

My son ran in the door from school to tell me a funny joke.  “Why is it, Dad, that we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?”  He guffawed, falling on the floor in spasms of laughter.  Kids.  I never expected that to be the moment when he proved his mettle for a seat on the New York Court of Appeals.

In Groninger v. Mamaroneck, New York’s highest court made its own version of that joke, holding that a parking lot was a highway, thus precluding Margaret Groninger from suing the Village of Mamaroneck for injuries sustained from a slip and fall on ice in the village parking lot because it hadn’t receive prior notice of the ice. 

New York requires that defects, even the transitory ones that exist for a few hours before disappearing in the midday sun, be noticed in writing if they’re on “any sidewalk, crosswalk, street, highway, bridge or culvert.”  Notice that there’s no mention of parking lot?  No problem.

As the  Washington Post explains:

Four judges say this parking lot serves the “functional purpose” of a highway, “open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.”

Three dissenting judges say that’s so obviously untrue “as hardly to merit serious discussion.”

There’s nothing worse than something being so obviously untrue as to be unworthy of discussion, and then lose. 

The lawyerly answer would seem to be that if the legislature wanted this misbegotten requirement to apply to parking lots, they need only have included those two little words in the statute.  No doubt they’re familiar with the words, as some regularly use parking lots to receive brown bags of currency for their reelection campaigns.  Being so familiar, the absence of parking lot in the law answers the question.

But no, as the majority concludes that parking lots are highways, for the “purpose of vehicular travel.”  Or, as most of us would conclude, for the purpose of vehicular parking, which could explain why we call them parking lots rather than highways.

But this case is merely about the distribution of cost for injuries sustained by a person who fell down.  What’s that got to do with criminal law?  Words, brother.  Words matter, and their meaning matters.  And when words cease to have meaning, it comes back to be used in any variety of unforeseen situations, and in other areas of law.

This is particularly troubling for criminal law, given the wealth of laws proscribing conduct on the roads, based on the notion that hurdling along in a 2000 pound bullet can cause plenty of harm to others.  It’s a generally reasonable idea.  But if the rationale for these laws is that a moving vehicle is a danger, then a parked vehicle isn’t of the same nature.  Granted, a person chatting on a cellphone could walk into a parked vehicle and cause some severe injuries to their nose, but that’s really a harm of a different nature.

Yet the conversion of highway to parking lot portends a lot of mischief.  It starts in cases like Groninger, where the goal is to protect the Village of Mamaroneck from a cash payout, and nobody worries all that much about the unintended consequences of divorcing the respective meanings of highway and parking lot.  But in time, and with some rote application of the headnotes, it could eventually seep down to the rest of the law.

And then the definition applied to public parking lots will grow to cover private lots, since both are, well, parking lots.  And so forth.  This is how law goes bad, sliding down the slippery slope from agonizing definitions in the Senate debate to meaninglessness in the courtroom.

As Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote in dissent:

It is so obvious as hardly to merit serious discussion that a parking lot does not fulfill the same function as a “highway.” As everyone knows, the dominant purpose of a parking lot is to accommodate stationary, i.e., parked, vehicles. By contrast, the precisely opposite dominant purpose of a highway is to enable vehicles to move with a degree of expedition. While a parking lot may be entered and exited by public roads the two types of facilities are notable for their essentially discontinuous purposes.

Probably more words than needed, when all he had to do was tell the joke my son told.  Except this decision isn’t a funny joke told by a kid in school, inclined to wear black converse and roll on the floor laughing. 

H/T Eric Turkewitz

One thought on “Words Slip, Words Fall

  1. Lee Keller King

    Sort of a mixture of Sovereign Immunity and Humpty Dumpty: ““When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    The Hell with all the serfs…I mean, citizens — have to protect the State, after all.

    Bah! Humbug!

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