N.Y. Court of Appeals Lowers the Bar on Summary Judgment in Personal Injury Cases

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On April 3, 2018, the New York Court of Appeals issued a closely divided opinion in Rodriguez v. City of New York, Case No. 32, holding that plaintiffs need not establish the absence of their own comparative negligence in order to be obtain partial summary judgment on the issue of defendants’ liability.

Rodriguez involved a serious injury to the plaintiff, a garage utility worker employed by the New York City Department of Sanitation.  It was undisputed that the plaintiff was injured when his coworkers, in violation of established department safety practices, guided a sanitation truck into a garage without stationing a guide on the passenger’s side of the truck.  In the course of driving into the garage, the truck skidded on ice and crashed into a parked car, propelling it into the plaintiff and pinning him against a rack of tires.

The plaintiff filed a negligence action against the City of New York in New York Supreme Court and, ultimately, moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of the City’s liability.  The Supreme Court denied that motion, reasoning that there were issues of fact that prevented the entry of summary judgment, including the issue of the plaintiff’s comparative negligence.  On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed, citing to a long line of New York cases stemming from Thoma v. Ronai, 189 A.D.2d 635 (1st Dep’t 1993), aff’d 82 N.Y.2d 736 (1993), which it interpreted as establishing the rule that a plaintiff may not be awarded partial summary judgment on the issue of a defendant’s negligence if the defendant has raised an issue of fact as to the plaintiff’s comparative negligence.

The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and the Court of Appeals reversed, declining to follow the Appellate Division precedent stemming from Thoma and, instead, finding the lower court’s summary judgment order to be contrary to the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”).  Specifically, CPLR 1411 provides that:

In any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.

Moreover, CPLR 1412 establishes that the existence of such culpable conduct is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded and proved by the party asserting that defense (in this case, the City of New York).  The Court of Appeals found that the rule applied by the lower courts in this case improperly flipped the burden of proof established by CPLR 1412 by requiring the plaintiff to show an absence of culpable conduct.  It also noted that the rule adopted by the lower courts creates a risk that a jury might falsely find a defendant to be not liable even though the defendant’s negligence was stablished as a matter of law.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that “[t]o be entitled to partial summary judgment a plaintiff does not bear the double burden of establishing a prima facie case of defendant’s liability and the absence of his or her own comparative fault.”  Instead, a plaintiff need only establish the defendant’s liability.

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