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Friday, April 10, 2020

New York Court of Appeals reverses lower court ruling in comparable fault suit

By Elizabeth Alt | Apr 24, 2018

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ALBANY, N.Y. (Legal Newsline) – In a 4-3 split decision on April 3, the New York Court of Appeals reversed a decision from the Supreme Court of New York in what it called a perplexing issue of comparative fault in a lawsuit by a former New York City worker who was permanently disabled while on the job.

Judge Paul G. Feinman wrote the opinion for the court, joined by judges Jenny Rivera, Eugene Fahey and Rowan Wilson, stating that the precedent to require plaintiff to prove he is free from comparative negligence creates a “double burden” for the plaintiff.

Judge Michael Garcia wrote a dissenting opinion with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Leslie Stein, noting concern that the majority’s reversal could enable future plaintiffs to win cases even if the defendant has proved the plaintiff was significantly at fault. 

The dissent says that the fairer ruling would be to uphold the widely accepted court precedent that a plaintiff must demonstrate their own comparative negligence to obtain summary judgment that the majority has rejected.

Carlos Rodriguez was injured on his job as a garage utility worker for the New York Department of Sanitation while putting snow chains on sanitation trucks, the opinion states. Rodriguez was pinned between a car and a rack of tires when a sanitation truck skidded and pushed a car into him. Rodriguez underwent spinal surgery and is permanently disabled from the accident, the opinion states.

Rodriguez filed suit against the City of New York over negligence allegations, claiming that his co-worker failed to properly guide the driver of the sanitation truck, which violated Department of Sanitation regulations and resulted in his accident. 

Rodriguez moved for partial judgment and the city moved to dismiss, arguing that Rodriguez could not “recover for injuries sustained while doing an assigned job, the purpose of which is to eliminate the cause of the injury.” 

The Supreme Court dismissed both motions, holding that there were “were triable issues of fact as to the city’s liability, specifically with respect to causation and foreseeability, as well as plaintiff’s comparative fault.” The Supreme Court rejected the city’s argument that the accident was “not an ordinary and obvious hazard of plaintiff’s employment.”

The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court ruling, stating that Rodriguez had not proved he was free of “comparable negligence.” The Appellate Division dissent stated that Rodriguez “does not bear the burden of disproving the affirmative defense of comparative negligence.” 

Rodriguez was granted the motion to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, which took on the question “Was the order of the Supreme Court, as affirmed by this court, properly made?’

Feinman said that although the appellate decisions have a precedent for a plaintiff to “show an absence of comparative fault in order to obtain partial summary judgment on liability,” the previous ruling does not consider the addition of Article 14. 

“The legislative history of article 14-A makes clear that a plaintiff’s comparative negligence is no longer a complete defense to be pleaded and proven by the plaintiff, but rather is only relevant to the mitigation of plaintiff’s damages and should be pleaded and proven by the defendant," Feinman wrote.

Garcia stated in his dissent that the Court of Appeals majority “is overruling this line of cases” that set a clear rule. 

“The rule has been, and should remain, that a plaintiff must demonstrate the absence of issues of fact concerning both defendant’s negligence and its own comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment,” Garcia wrote.

The Court of Appeals reversed the order with costs and remitted the case to the 1st Department Appellate Division for “consideration of issues raised but not determined on the appeal to that court and certified question answered in the negative.”

Rodriguez is represented by Joshua D. Kelner.

The city of New York is represented by Richard Dearing.

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