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Court of Appeals Redefines Summary Judgment Landscape (NY)

April 6, 2018

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Earlier this week, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court, issued a decision which is certain to change the landscape of personal injury litigation in New York.
In <em><a href="">Rodriguez v. City of NY</a></em>, decided on April 3, 2018, four of the seven Justices agreed that a plaintiff can obtain summary judgment against a negligent defendant<strong> even if there is evidence that the plaintiff bears comparative fault. (Yes, you read that correctly.)</strong>
In <em>Rodriguez, </em>plaintiff was at work, standing between a parked car and a tire rack, when a City of NY vehicle rolled into the parked car, causing plaintiff to get "sandwiched," and sustain back and neck injuries.   Both parties moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability. Both motions were denied by the trial Court. The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion, in part, because issues of fact existed as plaintiff’s comparative negligence. The plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division upheld the trial Court’s decision. Thereafter, plaintiff was granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
While the Court did not address the facts of this case specifically<a href="#_ftn1" name="_ftnref1">[1]</a>, they did decide that, contrary to precedent,  a plaintiff can obtain summary judgment against a defendant even if there are questions as to plaintiff’s comparative fault. It was found that it was against the intent of New York’s comparative fault statutes to permit a total bar of recovery (or here, summary judgment relief), due to comparative fault. The Court found that where a plaintiff has been awarded summary judgment on liability against a defendant, the liability trial will only ask a jury to determine how much of the total liability is attributed to plaintiff, after they are told that the defendant has already been found liable.
The Court based this decision on the supposed legislative intent of the comparative fault statutes in New York and found that it is only to be considered when calculating the percentage of damages attributable to both parties, not in assessing whether the defendant was in fact, negligent. Furthermore, the Court found that it is not a plaintiff’s burden to prove the absence of comparative fault to obtain summary judgment, but instead to prove only that the defendant was negligent or somehow responsible for the damages plaintiff sustained.
The Court goes so far as to say that “comparative fault is <em>not</em> 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.” Because it is not a defense, issues of fact related to it are insufficient to raise triable issues of fact precluding summary judgment and as such, should not be considered when deciding a motion made under CPLR 3212.
As a result of this decision, every case, even where a plaintiff may be 99% liable, is a potential summary judgment win for plaintiffs, including slip and fall on ice cases, sidewalk defect cases, and likely pedestrian knockdown cases. This fact alone will embolden the plaintiff's bar.
Now, if we may editorialize, this decision flies in the face of both precedent and of common sense.  Summary judgment is designed to confirm that there are no triable issues of fact for jury consideration.  Now defendants will be forced to litigate a plaintiff's comparative fault at trial, with the jury already likely knowing the defendant has been found liable.  This scenario strikes us as prejudicial to defendants.  We also note that, while currently unclear, it is possible that interest may be running (at 9% per annum) from the date SJ is entered up to trial.  We'll keep tabs on this issue.
If there is a silver lining, the Court of Appeals has redefined what summary judgment means.  Now, plaintiffs who are awarded summary judgment on liability have not truly been awarded summary judgment, since they must still litigate liability at trial, with their comparative fault at issue.  The silver lining is limited, however, and is certainly a huge win for the plaintiff's bar.  The ramifications of <em>Rodriguez </em>will be felt for years to come, and the number of cases where plaintiffs move for SJ will increase immediately.  Thanks to Dana Purcaro for her contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.
<a href="#_ftnref1" name="_ftn1">[1]</a> The Court remanded the ultimate decision on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment back down to the Appellate Division and focused this decision only on whether a plaintiff can obtain partial summary judgment even where there may be comparative fault.

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