Legal Alert! Has New York’s Highest Court Changed The Rules For Summary Judgment? – Commentary by GVK Partner Chad Sjoquist

April 6, 2018

In a decision that may have a significant impact in certain types of personal injury cases, New
York’s highest court held in Rodriguez v. City of New York on April 3, 2018, that a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit may obtain summary judgment on liability against a defendant even where there is an unresolved question of fact regarding the plaintiff’s own comparative negligence.

The plaintiff in Rodriguez was a New York City Department of Sanitation employee who had been assigned to place tire chains and plows on trucks that were about to provide snow and ice removal in New York City. The accident occurred when a sanitation truck backed up and struck a parked automobile that in turn struck the plaintiff.

The plaintiff claimed that the City was negligent and filed a motion for summary judgment based on that alleged negligence. The City opposed and argued that there were questions of fact regarding both its alleged negligence and whether plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the accident.

Typically, a question of fact as to a plaintiff’s alleged negligence has resulted in the entire question of liability being submitted to a jury, even if it is clear that the defendant was also negligent. In Rodriguez, however, the Court of Appeals, by a 4 to 3 majority, held that where the evidence establishes that a defendant was negligent as a matter of law, the plaintiff is entitled to judgment from that negligence and the only liability question for a jury will be plaintiff’s comparative negligence. The Court reasoned that because a plaintiff’s contributory negligence is not a bar to recovering from a negligent defendant pursuant to CPLR 1411, there is no reason why the plaintiff should have to wait until trial to obtain judgment for a negligent defendant’s liability. The Court concluded that lower courts had improperly required plaintiffs to bear the burden of proving that they were free from negligence before obtaining summary judgment, which did not comport with the purpose of CPLR 1411. Under Rodriguez, however, a negligent defendant will now bear the burden of trying to prove a plaintiff’s comparative negligence to a jury that has already been told that the defendant was deemed negligent.

Although the Court’s decision in Rodriguez is not helpful to defendants, it is unclear how this holding will affect personal injury lawsuits. It is still somewhat uncommon for a defendant’s negligence to be established as a matter of law before trial so that no jury resolution of that issue will be required, particularly where the claim is defended by competent and aggressive counsel. The Rodriguez holding will likely apply in the relatively small percentage of cases where there is overwhelming evidence of the alleged accident, the defect or condition that caused the accident, the defendant’s notice of, or other responsibility for, that condition, and the lack of any defense to that liability. There may be certain types of claims, such as transportation accidents, that will be more likely to be impacted. But the Rodriguez holding should not alter the course of most premises liability and other personal injury actions where counsel has set forth a triable defense to the defendant’s alleged liability.

The biggest practical effect of this decision may be to make it more difficult to settle some cases before motion practice and/or before trial. In instances where a defendant’s liability is likely or a plaintiff has already obtained summary judgment, that plaintiff’s leverage will substantially increase because the defendant will be forced to subject itself to the risks of trial to have any chance of establishing the plaintiff’s comparative negligence. In high value cases, early summary judgment may also lead to considerable interest on the plaintiff’s ultimate judgment (likely nine percent from entry of the summary judgment decision), as interest typically begins to accrue once a plaintiff obtains a liability judgment against a defendant.