Judge: Lawyers chomping at bit to cash in on Coney Boardwalk trip-and-falls

Judge: Lawyers chomping at bit to cash in on Coney Boardwalk trip-and-falls
Community Newspaper Group Will Bredderman

New plastic and concrete sections of the Coney Island Boardwalk could be land mines for the city — and a financial boon to slip-and-fall lawyers — a judge warned on Thursday.

Judge Martin Solomon told lawyers for the city that it needed to consider everything when it was planing to convert portions of the historic Coney Island Boardwalk from wood to concrete — including aggressive lawyers who’ll sue the city when clients fall down on the new surfaces.

“There’s what we call the law of unintended consequences. Has the Parks Department considered the potential cost from slip-and-falls?” Solomon asked. “There’s a bunch of trial lawyers here waiting for that plastic.”

The judge’s remarks came during the “Battle for the Boardwalk” hearing on Thursday — a case brought against the city by the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance, which claims the city broke the law when it replaced portions of the wooden boardwalk with cement and plastic without first looking into the impacts such a change would have on the area. Additionally, the suit claims that the newer material will not last as long as wood, and could result in the speeding up of erosion on the beach.

But Solomon, who represented Coney Island in the state Senate from 1977 until 1995, said he wasn’t interested in anything but the city’s failure to study the transformation before it took action. The judge even refused to look at evidence describing the boardwalk or hear arguments regarding erosion, claiming he was well aware of those subjects.

“I know more about the Boardwalk than anybody in this room,” said Solomon. “I’ve been up and down that Boardwalk, I’ve seen cars driving illegally on it, I’ve battled erosion on those beaches for years.”

Coney-Brighton Alliance attorney Amy Rialton argued that statutes mandate environmental impact studies when something as iconic as the Coney Island Boardwalk is at risk.

“The law calls for a study not just when a project affects the environment, but when it has potential to change the character of the neighborhood,” Rialton said.

But the city said it is simply updating the walkway.

“What this project is doing is replacing a boardwalk with a boardwalk,” said city lawyer Katy Kendall.

Solomon ultimately told both parties to expect his decision by mail in the next 60 days.

Friends of the Boardwalk President Todd Dobrin, one of the petitioners in the case, said he was confident the scales of justice would weigh in is his favor.

“He was a good, strict judge who just wanted to hear the facts,” Dobrin said. “A concrete boardwalk is not a boardwalk. It’s a concrete driveway.”

Others were less taken with Solomon’s performance.

“That was a pretty impressive showing of self-absorption, which a judge is not supposed to do,” said Tim Keating of the Rainforest Alliance, who is advocating for the city to switch warped and damaged Boardwalk planks with non-tropical woods that he believes would outlast concrete.

The Parks Department tested out the replacement materials on two sections of the Boardwalk — including a stretch between Ocean Parkway and Brighton First Street in Brighton Beach — in 2011, arguing that concrete is sturdier and cheaper than real wood.

Last spring, Community Board 13 rejected the plan to replace the Brighton Beach portion of the Boardwalk with cement — and in October the design commission ordered another review of the project after opponents testified that the slabs of concrete that the city laid down were already crumbling.

But the city’s Public Design Commission unanimously approved the Parks Department’s plan to replace a section of the Boardwalk after officials explained that they considered using other materials, such as Black Locust and Kebony woods, but found that concrete and recycled plastic lumber were still the best options.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at (718) 260–4507 or e-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/WillBredderman