Court of Appeals January Session: Arguments of Interest for January 5, 2017

The Court of Appeals has three cases on its docket for today’s arguments (the Court’s case summaries can be found here), addressing whether the State may be apportioned liability in a tort case in the trial level Supreme Court even when it cannot be sued there directly, whether a criminal defendant was denied a fair trial when he was forced to wear orange prison-issued pants through the first day of jury selection, and whether the State Office of Children and Family Services has authority under the Social Services Law to expunge Family Assessment Response reports before the expiration of the statutory 10-year maintenance period if the report determines that the allegations of parental neglect are unfounded.  The first case is previewed below:

No. 5     Artibee v Home Place Corporation

In Artibee, the plaintiff was injured when her car was struck by a falling tree branch while she was driving on a state-owned highway.  She sued the owner of the property where the tree was located, Home Place Corp., in the trial level Supreme Court.  Because under New York law, the State cannot be sued on a tort theory in the Supreme Court, however, the plaintiff also sued the State in the Court of Claims.

During trial, Home Place moved to admit evidence of the State’s liability in the accident and to apportion a percentage of fault to the State under CPLR 1601 for its alleged negligent failure to address the hazard that the tree posed.  CPLR 1601 modifies the traditional rule of joint and several liability in personal injury actions by allowing defendants who are found 50% liable or less to be apportioned only their percentage share of fault.  The statute provides, though, that the culpable conduct of persons that are not made a party to the action cannot be considered in the assignment of the percentage shares.  Supreme Court, therefore, concluded that CPLR 1601 imposes a jurisdictional limitation barring apportionment of fault to the State in the Supreme Court action.  That result, the Court held, was the most equitable because the State could not defend itself in the Supreme Court action, and Home Place could still seek indemnification from the State in the Court of Claims for any portion of a liability award it shows should have been attributed to the State.

The Appellate Division, Third Department, however, granted the motion for apportionment, holding that CPLR 1601 was silent on apportionment against the State in this situation, and the legislative history supported apportionment of only the defendants’ proportionate shares of fault.  The Court also emphasized that as a matter of policy, the defendant should not be penalized for failing to implead the State as an additional tortfeasor merely because it was jurisdictionally barred from doing so.  One dissenting Justice disagreed and would have affirmed the Supreme Court’s denial of apportionment, noting that advocates of court reform could use this case is one example of why New York would benefit from a single trial level court for cases against all parties, including the State, instead of the bifurcated system where contract and tort claims against the State must be brought in the Court of Claims.

The Appellate Division’s decision can be found here.

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