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NY Plaintiffs No Longer Need to Prove Absence of Comparative Fault for Summary Judgment

Carlos Rodriguez v. City of New York

On April 3, 2018, in a split decision, the New York Court of Appeals overturned a trial court order for a worker who was injured on the job but was denied summary judgment because he carried some personal negligence in the matter.

The plaintiff, Carlos Rodriquez sued his employer, the City of New York, alleging that he was injured on the job when he was attaching tire chains onto trucks that are used to plow snow from the city’s streets.  He alleged that he was pinned against a tire rack and injured his back, undergoing spinal fusion surgery and is now permanently disabled.

Partial Summary Judgment

After discovery, Rodriguez moved for partial summary judgment concerning liability and the city moved for summary judgment. Both motions were denied, finding issues of fact concerning foreseeability, causation, and comparative negligence. Both parties appealed.  The First Department Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the plaintiff’s motion, so Rodriguez appealed to the state’s highest level of appellate court, the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, finding that for personal injury or wrongful death actions in New York, the establishment of comparative fault is not necessary in order to obtain a partial summary judgment ruling.  Comparative fault, which assigns some of the fault to the plaintiff, is only up for consideration in the context of damages.  A finding of comparative or contributory negligence accounts for the plaintiff’s personal liability for the injury and serves to detract from the total amount of the award.  Additionally, the defendant(s) are liable for proving that the plaintiff played a part in the damages.

Outcome of Decision to Change New York Personal Injury Landscape

This case paved the way for plaintiffs to now obtain partial summary judgment on the defendant(s)’ liability without a need for facts proving that he or she did not play a part in the liability.  This holds true even if a defendant holds that there is a question of fact of this nature.

This decision will likely change the environment of New York state’s personal injury law in that we will likely see an increase in the number of motions for summary judgment filed on the issue of defendant liability since facts that may have previously precluded such a judgment are no longer relevant except for determining damages.  A court’s finding of liability will no longer be determined based upon the consideration of plaintiff comparative negligence.  The jury will still hear all evidence concerning each of the parties involved, though it will not be asked to determine guilt based upon whether the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the injury sustained.  With summary judgment this has already been established.

Plaintiffs may experience larger verdicts, as trials may become significantly more focused on damages.  Removing the decision of liability from the jury may cause for few pre-trial settlements or larger settlement demands from plaintiffs.