Partner Beck Fineman Secures Supreme Court Victory in Case Involving Novel Question of Statutory Interpretation

November 30, 2021


On November 15, 2021, RRD partner Beck Fineman secured a victory for Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company when the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed judgment in Metro-North’s favor in a case brought under CT’s “accidental failure” of suit statute.  The Court’s decision in Phyillis Larmel v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company, (SC 20535), broadened protections for defendants against cases refiled by plaintiffs after an earlier dismissal.  It also strengthened decisions rendered in cases referred to court-annexed arbitrations pursuant to General Statutes § 52-549u.  


The plaintiff, Phyllis Larmel, alleged that she was injured when she slipped and fell while boarding a Metro-North train.  She filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court, which mandated that the parties arbitrate pursuant to § 52-549u.  The arbitrator received evidence and rendered a verdict in Metro-North’s favor, finding that the railroad was not negligent.  Neither party demanded a trial de novo within the timeframe established by General Statutes § 52-549z.  By operation of the statute, the arbitrator’s decision thus became the judgment of the court.  The plaintiff then initiated a second lawsuit pursuant to General Statutes § 52-592(a), the accidental failure of suit statute.  Section 52-592(a) provides plaintiffs with an opportunity to initiate  a new action where the original action has failed to be “tried on its merits” for certain reasons, included for a matter of form, which can include excusable neglect.  Larmel claimed that her first action was not “tried on its merits” and her failure to demand a trial de novo was due to excusable neglect. 


In a new interpretation of § 52-592(a), the Supreme Court determined that an arbitration pursuant to § 52-549u is a quasi-judicial examination of the parties’ claims, submitted to a neutral fact finder empowered by statute to receive evidence and find facts.  The Court found that the arbitrator here, indeed, had considered evidence submitted by both parties and decided the case on the merits, thereby precluding the plaintiff from a second bite at the apple.  The Court’s decision broadens the scope of the phrase “tried on its merits” for purposes of § 52-592(a) to include forms of adjudication other than full-fledged formal trials, so long as the case is adjudicated on the merits of the claims and defenses.  Defendants who obtain favorable results in § 52-549u arbitrations, where no trial de novo is requested, are now assured that they will not face further litigation of those arbitrated claims.