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NY Court of Appeals ruling presents difficulties for defendants

The New York Court of Appeals, our state's highest court, recently decided Rodriguez v. City of New York. The court held that plaintiffs do not have the burden to establish the absence of their own comparative negligence in order to win partial summary judgment.

Such a ruling will create difficulties for defendants in lawsuits. Due to this ruling, defendants can expect to see more summary judgment motions filed by plaintiffs.

In the Rodriguez case, a New York City sanitation worker received injuries following a truck accident caused by a coworker. This worker then brought a negligence action against the city.

Leading up to this decision, the worker brought a motion for partial summary judgment on defendant's liability. However, the City argued that comparative negligence prevented granting of summary judgment. While both the trial court and the appellate division denied the worker's motion, the Court of Appeals reversed this decision.

What is comparative negligence - and why does it matter?

Ordinarily, summary judgment and partial summary judgment is only allowable when there is no defense available - no triable issues of fact. However, in this case the Court of Appeals held the defense of comparative negligence did not apply in a negligence action because it is not a defense to any element (duty, breach, causation). 

Comparative negligence is where the plaintiff's action in some manner contributed to the accident. Comparative negligence on the part of a plaintiff does not bar recovery. Rather, comparative negligence only reduces the damage award by a specific amount. For example, if a court or jury rules a plaintiff is ten percent at fault for his or her injuries, the award is reduced ten percent due to comparative negligence.

The City of New York in this case argued the plaintiff was at least partially at fault and as such, the entire case should go to trial. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Ultimately, the court determined that there is no need to submit more issues than necessary to the jury. So, if the plaintiff has already "established defendant's liability as a matter of law," that is one less issue that the jury to rule upon.  

What is the ultimate impact of this ruling?

The 4-3 decision in this case is controversial. The dissenting justices felt "that a plaintiff must demonstrate the absence of issues of fact concerning both defendant's negligence and its own comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment." 

While plaintiff attorneys will view Rodriguez v. City of New York favorably, it is of major concern to all defendants. Prior courts have ruled that where there exists an issue of fact on a plaintiff's alleged comparative negligence, summary judgment to the plaintiff is inappropriate. (Most notably, see Fazekas v. Time Warner Cable, Inc., 132 A.D.3d 1401, 18 N.Y.S.3d 251 (N.Y. App. Div. 2015).)

As you may be aware, a plaintiff can start the clock running on interest once it receives an order of summary judgment. Therefore, we can expect this ruling will allow more plaintiffs to start that interest running at an earlier time. We can also expect to see a proliferation of summary judgment motions by plaintiffs.

This case demonstrates the need of legal representation for defendants in a variety of areas, including but not limited to, construction and labor law, premises liability and insurance defense. Also, as evidenced above, rulings in this area tend to be extremely complex. 

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