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Court of Appeals Removes Hurdle for Tort Plaintiffs to Gain Summary Judgment


Ruling on an issue that has divided New York judges and “perplexed courts for some time,” a split Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs in comparative negligence cases need not bear the “double burden” of disproving their own negligence to win on summary judgment.

The high court’s 4-3 ruling clears up an issue that has bedeviled New York courts for decades, which has resulting in inconsistent case law on the issue of whether plaintiffs have to show that they are free of negligence to succeed on a summary judgment motion when determining a defendant’s liability.

Writing for the majority, Judge Paul Feinman said placing the burden on the plaintiff, a New York City sanitation worker injured on the job who sued the city government, to show an absence of fault is inconsistent with a state statute, which since 1975 has directed courts to assess a plaintiff’s comparative negligence only at the damages stage.

Feinman was joined in the majority by Judges Jenny Rivera, Eugene Fahey and Rowan Wilson.

But, writing for the dissent, Judge Michael Garcia, joined in the minority by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Leslie Stein, said the fact that the city’s liability was called into question in the case highlights the “unreasonableness” of the approach that his colleagues in the majority took in deciding the case.

“The facts of this case—which two courts have found created an issue of fact as to any liability on the part of defendant—highlight the unfairness of the majority’s new rule,” Garcia said.

On a snowy day in January 2011, Carlos Rodriguez was working in a Sanitation Department garage in Manhattan outfitting trucks with tire chains and snow plows, court papers state.

As one truck was backing in, Rodriguez walked between another vehicle parked behind the reversing truck and a rack of tires.

But when the truck driver applied his brakes, the truck skidded on ice, collided with the parked car and pinned Rodriguez against the tire rack.

Rodriguez was hospitalized and had to undergo spinal fusion, as well as a course of steroid injections in his lumbar region and extensive physical therapy. He was rendered permanently disabled and sued the city, alleging that it was negligent for the actions of his co-workers.

But the city countered that Rodriguez was negligent because he walked behind a reversing truck.

Rodriguez moved for partial summary judgment, but Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Freed denied the motion, finding that Rodriguez’s comparative negligence was a triable issue of fact.

Rodriguez appealed the matter to the Appellate Division, First Department, but the five-justice panel that heard the case split 3-2, with the majority finding for the city and ruling that a fairer way to resolve the case would be to let a jury consider each party’s negligence at a trial on liability.

But the majority also noted that requiring plaintiffs to prove that they are free of fault to prevail on summary judgment is a divisive issue that has produced conflicting rulings between the state’s appellate division departments and even among different sets of justices within the First Department.

Before 1975, New York followed the common-law doctrine of contributory negligence as a complete defense, meaning plaintiffs were precluded from recovery if found to be responsible in any way for their injuries.

But that year, the New York State Assembly passed Article 14-4, which established New York as a comparative-fault state for tort damages, meaning plaintiffs may recover even in cases where they are more than 50 percent at fault. The statute reduced plaintiff’s comparative negligence from a complete defense for defendants to a method of mitigating a plaintiff’s damages.

Feinman said the approach the city used in the case is at odds with the language of the statute, which states that a plaintiff’s fault in a case “shall not bar recovery,” as it would flip the burden of proving the absence of comparative fault from the defendant to the plaintiff.

Joshua Kelner of Kelner & Kelner, who appeared for Rodriguez, said the majority’s ruling provides a “blueprint for the courts to follow” when faced with similar scenarios.

“This ruling banishes the vestiges of contributory negligence from the rules of summary judgment,” Kelner said. The case was remanded to the First Department to address the issue of liability.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Tahirih Sadrieh appeared for the city in the case. A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city is disappointed with the decision and that it could invite summary judgment in “case after case where they will serve no meaningful purpose” because evidence about the parties’ conduct will be presented to the jury regardless.

The ruling also dealt a blow for some representatives of the defense bar.

The Defense Association of New York filed an amicus brief in the case calling on the Court of Appeals to affirm the lower court and deny Rodriguez’s summary judgment motion, arguing that removing the requirement for plaintiffs to negate their contributory negligence to win summary judgment is unfair and a drain on judicial resources.

Heather Wiltshire Clement, president of the association, said in an email that it is too soon to determine the ramifications of the high court’s decision.

“While we respect the decision of the court, the dissent’s opinion appropriately stated ‘assessing one party’s fault with a preconceived idea of the other party’s liability is inherently unfair,’” she said.

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