June 2018 – Summary Judgment Update

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Personal injury plaintiffs in New York state have cleared a significant obstacle on the path to summary judgment after a ruling by the New York Court of Appeals on April 3, 2018.

In the case of Rodriguez v City of New York, it was undisputed the plaintiff, Carlos Rodriguez, was injured when his coworkers, in violation of established department safety practices, guided a sanitation truck into a garage without stationing a guide on the passenger side of the truck.  The truck skidded on ice and crashed into a parked car, which then struck the plaintiff. However, the defense argued fault on the part of Mr. Rodriguez for walking behind a reversing truck.

The court determined a plaintiff does not bear the “double burden” of establishing the absence of their own comparative negligence in order to obtain partial summary judgment on the issue of defendants’ liability.

This decision reversed the precedent established in Thoma v. Ronai (1993), which ruled a plaintiff may not be awarded partial summary judgment on the issue of a defendant’s negligence if the defendant has raised an issue of fact as to the plaintiff’s comparative negligence.

The Court of Appeals found this to be in contradiction of a 1975 state statue which directs courts to assess a plaintiff’s comparative negligence only at the damages stage. New York Civil Practice Law and Rules 1411 states, “in any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.”

This ruling may provide some clarification for future proceedings in what has been a convoluted case history regarding summary judgment, as well as broaden pre-trail options for plaintiffs.  We expect to see more plaintiff summary judgment motions filed and a more streamlined approach to personal injury cases as a result.