Court of Appeals Addresses Comparative Negligence


April 9, 2018

By David M. Goodman, Esq.

 

On April 3, 2018, the Court of Appeals issued a lengthy 4-3 opinion in Rodriguez v. City of New York addressing whether plaintiffs must establish the absence of their own comparative negligence to obtain partial summary judgment in a comparative negligence case.  The Court held plaintiffs do not bear that burden.

 

The facts of the case were not in dispute.  Plaintiff worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS) as a garage utility worker.  He and his co-workers were tasked with outfitting the sanitation trucks with tire chains and plows for the winter.  While a truck was being directed into position for this work, the truck skidded and crashed into a parked car, propelling the car into the plaintiff and pinning him between the car and a stack of tires.  Plaintiff was allegedly injured as a result.  The means and methods as to how the truck was being positioned deviated from established DOS safety procedures.

 

Plaintiff commenced a negligence action against the City seeking monetary damages.  At the close of discovery, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of the City’s liability, and the City cross-moved for summary judgment.  By a decision issued October 16, 2014, the Supreme Court, New York County denied both motions.  In denying plaintiff’s motion, the Court found triable issues of fact regarding foreseeability, causation, and plaintiff’s comparative negligence.  Plaintiff appealed.  On September 1, 2016, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the trial Court’s denial of plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of negligence, relying upon the Court of Appeals’ oft-cited memorandum decision in Thoma v. Ronai, 82 N.Y.2d 736 (1993) in holding that plaintiff failed to make a prima facie showing that he was free from comparative negligence.  The Appellate Division granted plaintiff leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, certifying the question whether the Supreme Court’s order, as affirmed by the Appellate Division, was properly made.  The Court of Appeals reversed.

 

The Court of Appeals recognized the interplay between summary judgment motions governed by CPLR 3212 and the culpable conduct and comparative negligence principles of CPLR Article 14-A.  The Court found that these are two separate and distinct principles.  In discussing the application of CPLR 3212, the Court noted that “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 CPLR 1411 plainly states, is not a bar to plaintiff’s recovery, but rather a diminishment of damages.”  CPLR 1411 is New York’s comparative negligence statute, establishing that a claimant’s or decedent’s culpable conduct “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” (emphasis added).  The Court noted that CPLR 1412 explicitly states that a claim of culpable conduct under CPLR 1411 is an affirmative defense to be pleaded and proved by the party asserting that defense.  The Court held that to place the burden on a plaintiff to establish an absence of comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment is “inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR 1412.”  The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise could under certain circumstances result in the comparative negligence standard becoming, in practice, a contributory negligence standard, which result would be contrary to CPLR 1411.

 

As to its prior Thoma decision, the Court examined the briefs filed in that case and determined that the Court in Thoma “never addressed the precise question we now confront,” at least in part because it “never considered the import of article 14-A.”  The Court pointed out that the purpose of summary judgment is to narrow the issues for trial, and a decision to allow a determination of a defendant’s liability as a matter of law, independent of plaintiff’s comparative fault, serves that purpose.  In this case, the Court pointed out the issues for trial would be narrowed to plaintiff’s negligence (comparative fault) and whether such negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries.

 

It is possible that the Court of Appeals’ decision in Rodriguez may be used by defendants as a sword, rather than by plaintiffs as a shield.  Following Rodriguez, a defendant’s argument may become, “the plaintiff was negligent, and here is the proof of that negligence.”  To the extent Rodriguez essentially shifts the burden to plaintiffs to explain their actions, this may be a persuasive position for a defendant to take at trial.