Court of Appeals Removes Hurdle for Tort Plaintiffs to Gain Summary Judgment
The New York Court of Appeals removed a major hurdle for Plaintiffs in personal injury and accident cases from winning summary judgment Summary Judgment is a procedure where the Court can decide factual issues as a matter of law. Plaintiffs can submit proofs to the Court and the Court decides whether the Plainitff has proven that the defendant was negligent. Also a defendant can submit proofs to the Court and the Court can decide that the Plaintiff cannot prove a case. Up until this recent decision, the rule was that a Plaintiff could not win summary judgment if they could be found partially at fault. While for decades, our New York personal injury lawyers have won summary judgment in cases where the Plaintiff could not be at fault, like in car accidents involving rear end collisions or pedestrians who were struck by cars while walking in the crosswalk, this new decision has opened up the possibility of getting summary judgment holding that the defendant was negligent, even if the Plaintiff was partially at fault.
Before 1975, New York followed the common-law doctrine that contributory negligence was a complete defense, to a personal injury lawsuit. In other words plaintiffs in a personal injury law suit could not win if found to be even partially responsible for their injuries. But that year, the New York State Legilature passed Article 14-4 , which established New York as a comparative-fault law for tort damages, meaning that injured plaintiffs may recover even in cases where they are more than 50 percent at fault. The statute reduced plaintiff’s comparative negligence from a complete defense for defendants to a method of reducing a plaintiff’s damages, in proportion to their degree of comparative fault.
In the recent case which the Court of Appeals decided, on a snowy day in January 2011, plaintiff and two coworkers, employees of defendant New York City's Department of Sanitation (DOS), were tasked with placing tire chains on sanitation trucks to provide better traction in the snow. While plaintiff was waiting for his coworkers to bring another truck into the garage for outfitting with chains, he walked towards the garage, between a parked car and a rack of tires. The Plaintiff was injuried when his coworkers backed the truck into the parked car, which was propelled into him. The driver testified that, as he moved the truck in reverse, the "guide man" stood on the driver's side (he should have been guiding from the passenger's side, according to an accident report by a DOS safety officer) and gave an abrupt signal to stop, at which point the driver hit the brakes hard enough that he "jerked the truck" and slid into the car. The guide man testified that he started signaling from the passenger's side, as required, and moved to the driver's side only after it appeared that the driver was unable to see him signaling to stop. The guide man further testified that he signaled several times to stop, but the driver did not brake until the guide man moved to the driver's side and began waving his arms and yelling.
Plaintiff testified that he was walking between the rack of tires and the front of the parked car as the truck was backing up, and that he heard the truck beeping as it did so. He did not, however, attempt to keep the truck in view because he could not see it as he was walking towards the garage and in front of the parked car. When the driver hit the brakes, the truck slid and struck the rear of the parked car, which slid into plaintiff, pinning him between the front of the car and a rack of tires. He landed with his back on the hood of the car, and suffered resulting injuries.
Plaintiff filed a lawsuit for his personal injuries and, after discovery, the Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, arguing that the record established that defendant's employees were solely responsible for the accident and that their failure to maintain control of the truck constituted a prima facie case of negligence. Plaintiff also argued that there was no evidence indicating that he was comparatively negligent, because at the time of the accident he was standing in an area where he was permitted to be and was in a position of ostensible safety (according to an affidavit by plaintiff's expert, a retired DOS safety officer). Defendants arguedthat there were triable issues of fact as to whether plaintiff was free from comparative fault. The motion court denied plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, finding, inter alia, that, even if the evidence established defendant's negligence, the question of plaintiff's comparative fault "must be resolved at trial.
Writing for the majority Judge Paul Feinman of the New Y ork Court of Appeals held that placing the burden on the plaintiff, a New York City sanitation worker injured on the job who sued the city government, to show an absence of fault is inconsistent with a state statute, which since 1975 has directed courts to assess a plaintiff’s comparative negligence only at the damages stage. But, writing for the dissent, Judge Michael Garcia, joined in the minority by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Leslie Stein, said the fact that the city’s liability was called into question in the case highlights the “unreasonableness” of the approach that his colleagues in the majority took in deciding the case.
Ruling on an issue that has divided New York judges and “perplexed courts for some time,” a split Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs in comparative negligence cases need not bear the “double burden” of disproving their own negligence to win on summary judgment.
Plantiff’s lawyers, said that the majority’s ruling provides a “blueprint for the courts to follow” when faced with similar scenarios.
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city is disappointed with the decision and that it could invite summary judgment in “case after case where they will serve no meaningful purpose” because evidence about the parties’ conduct will be presented to the jury regardless.
Also the Defense Association of New York filed an amicus brief in the case calling on the Court of Appeals to affirm the lower court and deny Plaintiff’s summary judgment motion, arguing that removing the requirement for plaintiffs to negate their contributory negligence to win summary judgment is unfair and a drain on judicial resources.
There has been a mixed reaction to the high court ruling. However, the high court’s 4-3 ruling clears up an issue that has bedeviled New York courts for decades, which has resulting in inconsistent case law on the issue of whether plaintiffs have to show that they are free of negligence to succeed on a summary judgment motion when determining a defendant’s liability. Our New York personal injury lawyers applaud this decision and hope it opens the door for Plaintiffs to win summary judgment and this decision is a new tool to cut through the delay tactics of defense lawyers and insurance companies.