Court of Appeals Holds the State Cannot be Apportioned Fault in Personal Injury Case in Supreme Court

In Artibee v Home Place Corporation (No. 5) previewed here, the Court of Appeals held that CPLR 1601(1), which modifies the normal rule of joint and several liability by limiting the liability of a joint tortfeasor with 50% or less of the total liability for noneconomic loss to the tortfeasor’s actual proportion of fault, does not permit Supreme Court to permit apportionment of fault to the State, over which it lacks jurisdiction, in a personal injury action.

CPLR 1601 generally permits apportionment of fault to a nonparty defendant in a personal injury action, unless the plaintiff is “unable to obtain jurisdiction over” the nonparty defendant “in said action (or in a claim against the state, in a court of this state).” CPLR 1601(1). Section 1601(1), thus, creates an express dichotomy where apportionment is available against a nonparty between cases brought against non-State defendants in Supreme Court and those against the State in the Court of Claims. In an action against the State brought in the Court of Claims, CPLR 1601(1) expressly allows the apportionment fault to nonparties over whom jurisdiction could have been obtained in any New York court. In an action in Supreme Court, however, CPLR 1601(1) allows apportionment to a nonparty only where jurisdiction could have been obtained in that action. Because the State has not waived its sovereign immunity from suit in Supreme Court, and Supreme Court thus lacks jurisdiction over the State, the Court held, CPLR 1601(1) does not allow for apportionment of fault against the State in personal injury actions in brought in Supreme Court.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the “jurisdiction” referred to in CPLR 1601(1) relates only to personal jurisdiction, because the Legislature used the catchall term “jurisdiction” and could have easily limited the term to personal jurisdiction had it intended to do so. Furthermore, the Court held, reading the term “jurisdiction” as including only personal jurisdiction would render meaningless the statute’s operative phrase in this case that jurisdiction needs to be available “in said action (or in a claim against the state, in a court of this state)” in order to apportion fault to a nonparty, because personal jurisdiction is available over the State in the Court of Claims. CPLR 1601(1). That reading, the Court held, would rewrite the statute in violation of accepted principles of statutory construction.

The Court’s decision preserves the multi-stage process required of plaintiffs that wish to sue the State as a joint tortfeasor in a personal injury case: an action in the Court of Claims against the State and a simultaneous action against the non-State defendants in Supreme Court. Because the State cannot be apportioned fault in Supreme Court, however, the joint tortfeasor defendant in Supreme Court must face that action without assessment of the State’s liability, and the possible consequent need to commence a separate contribution action against the State after payment of any judgment.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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