Court of Appeals February Session: Arguments of Interest for February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine’s Day! The Court of Appeals wraps up its February Session with three cases on the calendar (the Court’s case summaries can be found here). The specific issues the Court will face include: (1) whether a plaintiff seeking summary judgment on the issue of liability must establish, as a matter of law, that he or she is free from comparative fault or whether that issue should be left to the damages portion of trial; (2) whether a worker was injured as a result of a force of gravity accident under Labor Law § 240(1) where he was operating a forklift when it tipped forward ejecting him from it; and (3) what is the maximum term of probation that may be imposed on a criminal defendant that is adjudicated a youthful offender on a charge of sexual abuse in the first degree.

No. 32     Rodriguez v City of New York

The New York City Department of Sanitation takes care of the snow plowing in New York City.  So, before the City gets a big storm, its trucks have to be equipped with plows and tire chains. That’s what the plaintiff was doing when he was hurt. As he and two co-workers were putting the tire chains on the City’s trucks, his co-workers backed a truck into a garage bay. The plaintiff walked behind the truck, the truck skid on ice while trying to stop, and the plaintiff was pinned between the truck and a stack of tires.

After the plaintiff sued the City for his co-workers’ negligence, Supreme Court denied his motion for partial summary judgment on liability, holding that the issue of the plaintiff’s comparative negligence had to be left to the jury to decide.

The Appellate Division, First Department, noting that when issues of comparative negligence should be decided in the course of litigation have vexed the courts for a long time, affirmed the denial of partial summary judgment. The Court held that the reasonable approach was to submit all of these issues to the jury if the plaintiff is unable to show that he is free from comparative fault on summary judgment.  That way, the Court reasoned, both sides can present their proof on comparative fault and the jury can sort it out.

Two justices dissented, arguing that the plaintiff’s burden on partial summary judgment as to liability should only be to establish the defendant’s fault. As the dissenters put it, “[t]he affirmative defense of comparative negligence is a partial defense that does not bar a plaintiff’s recovery, but merely reduces the amount of damages in proportion to the plaintiff’s culpable conduct.” That approach, the dissenters would have held, more closely aligns with the prevailing case law in New York, the CPLR, and the pattern jury instructions.

I think the dissent is right on this one. A prima facie case on the defendant’s liability for summary judgment purposes need only include enough evidence to show that the defendant was negligent. The plaintiff’s comparative fault is not a complete defense to the defendant’s liability. If the plaintiff can show that the defendant is somewhat at fault, then how much his damages should be reduced as a result of his own fault in the accident should only be addressed at the damages phase, not when the plaintiff has sought partial summary judgment only on liability. We’ll see if the Court of Appeals comes out the same way.

The Appellate Division, First Department’s decision can be found here.

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