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A major 2018 N.Y.S. Court of Appeals victory for injured plaintiffs: Rodriguez v. City of New York.

Photograph: Workers in uniform riding on the back end of an open garbage truck.

New York’s highest Court, the Court of Appeals, has just issued what can only be called a seismic-shift decision that greatly benefits injured persons in New York State.

The case, Carlos Rodriguez v. City of New York, 2018 N.Y. LEXIS 793 (2018), issued on April 3, 2018, makes the summary judgment process on liability much more fair and equitable for injured plaintiffs.

Plaintiff’s personal injury cases consist of several important levels of proof:  liability by a negligent or careless defendant, injury to the plaintiff, a causal connection between defendant’s carelessness and plaintiff’s injury, and damages.  Each point of proof is a complex end in and of itself -- but when they must all be connected together, well, that’s why you hire an experienced plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer to help you.

So the first question that must be answered in any personal injury case is whether the careless person, the defendant, was liable in negligence for causing the accident.  If no, the case goes away in its entirety, defendant wins.  If yes, defendant is held responsible for being negligent or careless, and the rest of the case against defendant for damages unfolds from there.  Sometimes cases can be resolved on this issue of liability on paper alone.  This process is called “summary judgment,” and is made upon motion to the Court by one side or the other -- sometimes by the plaintiff (to establish liability against the defendant), more often by the defendant (to get out of liability).

Summary judgment on the issue of liability made by the injured plaintiff against the defendant is just what it sounds like: a summary, or condensed and abbreviated, determination by the Court without a trial as to whether there are no “questions of fact” that must be determined by a jury on the issue of defendant’s liability for causing the accident itself.  If there are no questions of fact, the injured party wins the critical liability portion of the case.

Summary judgment can be good for the case, as it narrows the issues that must be determined at trial.  And such narrowing very often leads the parties to settle their case, because they know better what the outcome could be before a jury. 

In Rodriguez, the Court of Appeals set forth the question posed by the case there simply and clearly, as follows:

“This appeal requires us to answer a question that has perplexed courts for some time: Whether a plaintiff is entitled to partial summary judgment on the issue of a defendant's liability, when, as here, defendant has arguably raised an issue of fact regarding plaintiff's comparative negligence. Stated differently, to obtain partial summary judgment in a comparative negligence case, must plaintiffs establish the absence of their own comparative negligence. We hold that a plaintiff does not bear that burden.”

That’s the amazing change in the law of personal injury in New York.

The facts in the case are as follows: plaintiff Carlos Rodriguez worked as a garage utility worker for the New York City Department of Sanitation.  He was injured when another worker backed a giant sanitation truck into the garage to be fitted for tire chains and a third worker guided the truck in while standing on the wrong side of the vehicle, in violation of regulations.  The truck then skidded on ice and struck a parked car, which pinned Mr. Rodriguez.  Plaintiff’s injuries were so severe he needed spinal fusion surgery.

Plaintiff Rodriguez sued the City of New York and moved for partial summary judgment against the City on the issue of liability.  The Courts below denied that motion, determining that plaintiff Rodriguez had not and could not prove he was completely free of what is called “comparative negligence” -- that he was somehow responsible in some way or percentage for causing his own injuries, and therefore a question of fact arose that had to be determined by a jury, necessitating denial of his motion on liability against the defendant City.

For years and years, plaintiff’s attorneys in New York State have battled the insurance defense lawyers over whether their injured clients were completely free of their own negligence sufficient to prove that no questions of fact existed, thereby winning summary judgment on the issue of liability.  However, under pre-Rodriguez case law, it has sometimes been almost laughably easy for the defendant’s attorneys to raise a question of the plaintiff’s own negligence sufficient to create a question of fact requiring denial of plaintiff’s summary judgment motion on liability.

But, as the Court of Appeals now makes clear in Rodriguez, insurance defense lawyers and Courts -- along with acquiescing plaintiffs’ counsel -- have been erroneously mixing up two key concepts in New York law to readily create those questions of fact against injured plaintiffs, which defeat their summary judgment motions on liability: Article 14-A of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (the “C.P.L.R.”), governing comparative fault, and C.P.L.R. § 3212, which governs summary judgment. 

To make a long story short, C.P.L.R. Article 14-A, finding a percentage of comparable fault between the parties, can only be used when a defendant tortfeasor has already been found liable in negligence by a jury or fact-finder, and only applies in the last, damages portion of the case.  But lawyers and courts have been erroneously and improperly applying Article 14-A comparative fault principles to defeat summary judgment motions on liability at the very first stage of the proceedings, when determining the preliminary, fundamental liability issue of the negligence of the defendant.  These are two distinctly different concepts in a negligence case, applicable at different stages of the proceedings, as the statutes governing these principles apply in two distinctly different ways.  As such, the Court of Appeals found this was error -- in essence, putting the cart before the horse -- and reversed the lower court decisions against Mr. Rodriguez. 

So, the new, clarified rule of the Court of Appeals in Rodriguez is as follows:

“We agree with plaintiff that to obtain partial summary judgment on defendant's liability he does not have to demonstrate the absence of his own comparative fault … To be entitled to partial summary judgment a plaintiff does not bear the double burden of establishing a prima facie case of defendant's liability and the absence of his or her own comparative fault.”

This decision is a complete and thorough victory for injured plaintiffs across New York State.  It makes successful motions for summary judgment on the issue of defendant’s liability in negligence much easier to achieve, because it requires proper application of the law as enacted by the New York State Legislature.  And once that liability determination is made, and it goes against the negligent defendant, it will be much easier for injured persons to win cases at trial, or settle cases before trial with the defendant’s insurance carrier. 

Law firms who represent insurance companies are already moaning and complaining in their blogs about how bad this Rodriguez case is now for them, how unfair, etc.

I don’t think correctly following the law is unfair.  I don’t think justice being properly done is unfair.  As a plaintiff’s attorney representing injured people, I just felt the earth move under my feet.  In a good way, for once.

A complete copy of the Carlos Rodriguez v. City of New York decision can be found here:

https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-court-of-appeals/1893085.html

 

 

James Snyder