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The Court of Appeals Holds That Plaintiffs Do Not Bear the Burden Of Proving She is Free of Comparative Fault: A Review of: Rodriguez v. City of New York By Douglas Rosenzweig, Esq.

April 20, 2018 • Posted By • Labor & Employment

 

In a contentious 4-3 split decision in Rodriguez v. City of New York, (2018 NY Slip Op 02287), the Court of Appeals took up the issue of whether a plaintiff is entitled to partial summary judgment on the issue of a defendant's liability, when a defendant has raised an issue of fact regarding plaintiff's comparative negligence. Writing for the majority, Justice Paul Feinman stated the question thusly: to obtain partial summary judgment in a comparative negligence case, must plaintiffs establish the absence of their own comparative negligence. The Court narrowly held that a plaintiff does not bear that burden.

In Rodriguez, the plaintiff, a New York City sanitation worker, was injured at a sanitation facility when he and his co-workers were working to put chains and plows on vehicles so they could remove snow from the roads. A truck was backing into a garage bay to be outfitted when the driver hit the brakes quickly and the truck skidded backwards into the rear of a parked car in the facility. At that time, plaintiff was walking in front of the parked car. The City maintained that plaintiff was at fault because he walked behind a sanitation truck moving in reverse in icy conditions.

All parties moved for summary judgment.  The Supreme Court denied all motions, holding, in relevant part, that plaintiff would not be entitled to summary judgment since the question of his comparative fault must be resolved at trial.  The First Department affirmed in a split decision, holding that the correct approach is to require a plaintiff to make a prima facie showing that he was free from comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment on the issue of liability.

The Court of Appeals reversed and opined that 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 is a question of statutory construction of the CPLR, specifically §§ 3212, 1411 and 1412.  Justice Feinman noted that placing the burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR 1412. In 1975, New York adopted a system of pure comparative negligence, and, in so doing, directed courts to consider a plaintiff's comparative fault only when considering the amount of damages a defendant owes to plaintiff.

The Court of Appeals found further support for its decision in the legislative history of Article 14-A which “made clear” that a plaintiff's comparative negligence is no longer a complete defense to be pleaded and proven by the plaintiff, but rather is only relevant to the mitigation of plaintiff's damages and should be pleaded and proven by the defendant.

The Court further held that permitting summary judgment on defendant’s liability even if comparative fault exists was beneficial in that it would narrow the issues for a jury to consider.  Specifically, a jury would only have to decide if plaintiff was negligent and to what degree, rather than focusing on whether the defendant was negligent. 

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. Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division, insofar as appealed from, should be reversed, with costs, and the case remitted to the Appellate Division for consideration of issues raised but not determined on the appeal to that court and the certified question answered in the negative.”

The dissent argued (and we strongly agree), that a plaintiff should be required to demonstrate the absence of issues of fact concerning both defendant's negligence and its own comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment. The dissent was well-reasoned and supported by ample case law, most notably, Thoma v Ronai, 82 NY2d 736 (1993).

Practically, we expect plaintiffs to move for summary judgment with increased frequency, especially in connection with Labor Law § 241(6).  Plaintiff’s counsel will argue that regardless of their client’s comparative fault, a violation of the Industrial Code renders a defendant negligent per se.  This in turn will start interest of 9% running from the date summary judgment is granted, putting extra pressure on defendants to settle cases in which plaintiff bears a large degree of responsibility.  There will be little defendants can do to defeat these motions, other than comprehensive and vigilant preparation during pre-trial discovery and reliance on experts to support the claim that no code violations exist. 

 

A link to the decision can be found here: http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2018/2018_02287.htm