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New Court of Appeals Ruling on Summary Judgment Will Benefit Plaintiffs


The New York Court of Appeals recently issued an important decision on summary judgment in the case of Rodriguez v. City of New York.  Summary judgment is a judgment that is entered by a judge for one party and against another without a full trial.  It may be granted to resolve the whole case or only a particular issue or issues (partial summary judgment).

When a party makes a motion for summary judgment, she is asking the judge to decide the case or issue in her favor before trial.

In a personal injury case in which the fault of the defendant is clear -- where the defendant ran a red light at an intersection and broadsided the plaintiff's car, for example -- the injured plaintiff often makes a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of the defendant's liability.

The motion, usually made after discovery is completed, asks the judge to rule based on deposition testimony and other evidence produced during the discovery process that the defendant was negligent and that the defendant's negligence caused plaintiff's injury.  If the judge rules in the plaintiff's favor, then the case is scheduled for trial only on the issue of damages -- how much money the defendant must pay in order to compensate the plaintiff.

The Rodriguez case deals with a complication that arises in personal injury cases in which the defendant alleges that the plaintiff herself bears some of the responsibility for her injury. New York's "comparative fault" statute allows a plaintiff in that situation to recover on her claim, but reduces her damage award by the percentage of her responsibility, as determined by the jury.

In a rear-end collision, for example, a jury could find a defendant's negligence in following too closely to be 80% of the cause of the crash and plaintiff's negligence in braking suddenly to be 20% of the cause.  In that case, the damages awarded by the jury for plaintiff's injuries would be reduced by 20%.

The question in Rodriguez was whether a judge could grant the plaintiff (Mr. Rodriguez) partial summary judgment on the defendant's liability without first establishing that he was free from negligence himself.

The plaintiff was employed by the New York City Department of Sanitation in its garage.  It was a snowy winter day and the plaintiff was working to outfit sanitation trucks with tire chains.  Truck drivers would back into one of the garage bays, guided by a worker who would give directions while standing on the passenger side of the truck.  Once the truck was safely parked inside the bay, the driver, guide and a third worker (the plaintiff) would put on the chains.

At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was standing outside of a garage bay, between a parked car and a rack of tires, while the next truck in line backed toward the garage.  The driver was assisted by a guide who was standing on the driver's side of the truck rather than the passenger side, in violation of established Department of Sanitation safety practices.  The parked car, plaintiff, and the tire rack were on the passenger side.  In the course of backing up, the truck struck the parked car, pushing it into plaintiff and pinning him against the tire rack, causing serious injuries.

The plaintiff sued the City of New York and, after discovery, made a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of the City's liability.  The City opposed the motion and made its own cross-motion for summary judgment, contending among other things that the plaintiff was negligent himself in standing/walking to the rear of a backing truck.  The trial court denied both motions and the New York State Appellate Division, First Department affirmed, holding that the plaintiff must show that he is free of comparative fault in order to be granted summary judgment against a defendant on the issue of liability.

Although this ruling was consistent with the opinions of most New York courts on the matter, the Appellate Division was divided 3-2 on the issue and granted the plaintiff leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, to determine, as the Court of Appeals put it: "whether a plaintiff must demonstrate the absence of his or her own comparative negligence to be entitled to partial summary judgment as to a defendant's liability."

In a 4-3 decision reversing the Appellate Division, the Court of Appeals answered, "No."

The court wrote that the question of whether a plaintiff must prove an absence of negligence on his part in order to get partial summary judgment on liability is a matter of construction of New York's Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR).  Focusing on CPLR § 1411, which provides that in a personal injury action:

...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,

and CPLR § 1412, which provides that the culpable conduct of the plaintiff "shall be an affirmative defense to be pleaded and proved by the party asserting the defense" (the defendant), the court noted that placing the burden on the plaintiff to show that he was not negligent is inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR § 1412 because it would flip the burden of proof on the issue of the plaintiff's culpable conduct from the defendant to the plaintiff.

In addition, requiring a plaintiff to prove his freedom of comparative fault in order to get partial summary judgment against the defendant would run afoul of the requirement in CPLR § 1411 that the plaintiff's fault be considered only in determining the amount of damages owed by the defendant to the plaintiff.

Thus, the court concluded "to 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."

Going forward after Rodriguez, a plaintiff who moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability will have to prove that the defendant was negligent and that the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident/injury, but will no longer have to demonstrate that she, herself, is free from fault in order to prevail on the motion.

As a result, we are likely to see more motions by plaintiffs for partial summary judgment, more issues resolved before trial, more settlements and earlier settlements, allowing the parties to avoid the time and expense of trial.

Even where a trial is still necessary, it may be shortened by resolving some of the issues in advance and focusing the jury's attention only on issues that are truly in dispute.  Granting summary judgment on liability issues that are clear will also help avoid erroneous unfavorable verdicts which, despite being fairly rare and correctable on appeal, mean months of delay and thousands of dollars in unwarranted expenses for the plaintiff.

Finally, to the extent that Rodriguez leads to more motions for partial summary judgment on liability being granted, it will be beneficial to plaintiffs because once judgment on liability is entered, interest starts to run at the statutory rate of 9%, eliminating any defense benefit of stalling.

All in all, the Rodriguez decision is a "win" not only for Mr. Rodriguez, but for New York plaintiffs in general.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a personal injury accident, contact Faraci Lange today for a free legal consultation.

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