NY High Court Overturns 25 Years of Precedent in Ruling on Contributory Negligence

by Harris Beach PLLC

The flood gates in New York courts have been opened wide for personal injury plaintiffs by the removal of an obstacle to their success on motions for summary judgment in negligence actions following the recent decision of the Court of Appeals, the New York’s highest court, in Rodriguez v. the City of New York, __N.Y. __, 2018 WL 1595658.  A divided Court, in a 4-3 decision, held that a plaintiff does not need to show that he was free of comparative negligence in order to win on motion for summary judgment on liability establishing a defendant’s negligence. The Court by its holding has determined that comparative negligence of a plaintiff is a matter of damages and not a matter of liability.  The decision was authored by Justice Feinman and joined by Justices Rivera, Fahey, and Wilson; Justice Garcia wrote the dissent and was joined by Chief Justice DiFiore and Justice Stein.

The facts of the underlying case are fairly straightforward.  Plaintiff, Carlos Rodriguez was seriously injured working for the New York City Department of Sanitation when a sanitation truck that was backing up, skidded out of control and struck a parked car which then pinned plaintiff against a rack of tires. In violation of the department’s standard procedures, at the time of the accident, plaintiff was walking behind the truck while it was moving backwards.  At the trial court level, both plaintiff and defendant moved for summary judgment as to liability; the trial court denied both motions finding issues of fact relating to foreseeability, causation and plaintiff’s comparative negligence.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the statutes applicable to the standards for summary judgment - CPLR §3212 - and the principles of comparative negligence under Article 14-A of the CPLR do not in any way require a plaintiff to demonstrate the absence of his own comparative negligence in order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment as to a defendant’s liability: “Placing the burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR §1412.”  The court rejected the defendant’s argument that under CPLR 3212, comparative negligence is a defense to a plaintiff’s motion.  Instead, the court found that comparative negligence is an issue relating to the apportionment of damages to be determined at the time of trial:

But, comparative negligence is not a defense to the cause of action of negligence because it is not a defense to any element (duty, breach, causation) of plaintiff’s prima facie cause of action for negligence, and as CPRL 1411 plainly states, is not a bar to plaintiff’s recovery, but rather a diminishment of the amount of damages.

In reaching this determination, the court examines the legislative history of CPLR §1411, which provides in part “[i]n any action to recover damages for personal injury ... the culpable conduct attributable to claimant … shall not bar recovery,” and found nothing in the history to support the argument that comparative negligence scheme provides a complete defense as it was under the older scheme of pure contributory negligence.  The court found that comparative negligence is merely “relevant to the mitigation of plaintiff’s damages and should be pleaded and proven by the defendant.”

The court evaluated prior case law, including its own decisions, which had been relied upon as precedent on the issue of plaintiff’s comparative negligence as a bar to the grant of summary judgment.  In a carefully crafted section of the decision, the court determined that there was in fact no basis for the presumption that such a procedural rule exists and overturned twenty-five years of precedent which held otherwise:

Contrary to the dissenters’ view, neither Thoma nor these subsequent decisions created a procedural rule placing the burden on plaintiffs to show an absence of comparative fault in order to obtain partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant’s liability.

The court reasoned that the practical consequence of this ruling will not adversely impact defendants at the time of trial where comparative negligence is an issue.  This conclusion, however, fails to take into account the impact on the jury when it is instructed that the defendant has already been found liable as a matter of law when evaluating the relative negligence of all parties, while a jury will still be required to evaluate and allocate fault to both plaintiff and defendants. Thus the new rule will not serve to streamline the length or complexity of a jury trials on such matters; it just removes one issue from the jury which, as the dissent notes, goes against precedent set by the Court of Appeals and directions to the jury relating to the allocation of fault as set forth in the New York Pattern Jury Instructions.

Another troubling consequence of this new rule is that it allows the trial court to supplant what had been the role of the jury in resolving the question of a defendant’s liability enabling it to find as a matter of law that a defendant is liable for negligence.  A jury will still need to hear evidence as to the negligence of all parties, including the comparative negligence of plaintiff, in order to allocate percentage of fault.

A plaintiff in a pure negligence case who himself is comparatively negligent will now have two opportunities to hold a defendant liable: once at summary judgment and again at trial should the motion not succeed.  This ruling will provide plaintiffs a valuable weapon in leveraging pre-trial settlements and will give trial courts even greater ability to force defendants to settle.  Defendants already face a difficult task in disposing of negligence cases at the summary judgment stage as trial courts are reluctant to grant such a “drastic remedy” in dismissing a plaintiff’s case, often finding issues of a fact requiring trial -- though it remains to be seen whether trial courts will be equally reluctant to grant plaintiff’s motions for summary judgment on the issue of defendant’s liability.  This new rule allowing plaintiffs who are comparatively negligent to win summary judgment will only enhance the burden on defendants through increased litigation costs and potentially higher settlement values in the face of a liability finding by the court.  Defendants can no longer raise the potential culpable conduct of the plaintiff as a question of fact as the basis to defeat a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on liability in a negligence case.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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