Comparative Fault in the Context of a Motion for Summary Judgment in Liability Claims

The Appellate Division, First Department of New York State recently determined that an individual must make a prima facie showing of freedom from comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment on the issue of liability. The decision by the Appellate Division now aligns with the Second Department, and finally sets the standard for the trial courts within the department which were issuing conflicting decisions on the subject.

The Appellate Division, First Department of New York State recently determined that an individual must make a prima facie showing of freedom from comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment on the issue of liability. The decision by the Appellate Division now aligns with the Second Department, and finally sets the standard for the trial courts within the department which were issuing conflicting decisions on the subject.

The affirmative defense of contributory fault is laid out in CPLR 1411 which reads, “a plaintiff’s contributory fault may proportionally diminish his or her recovery, but will not preclude recovery unless the plaintiff was solely at fault.” The issue was whether the court should grant a partial summary judgment as to liability, and thus leave the defense to be raised in the damages portion of the claim.

The plaintiff, Carlos Rodriguez, was a Sanitation worker for the City of New York. The plaintiff was injured on the job when one of the defendant’s sanitation trucks backed into a car, which then struck the plaintiff. The plaintiff commenced an action against the City of New York for the injuries suffered from the incident.

While the court determined the case clearly met the elements for a liability claim against the defendant, the defendant raised the issue that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent by being located in a location of the facility where he was not supposed to be when he was struck. The plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment, determining that the defendant was liable. The lower level court denied partial summary judgment as to the liability claim due to the plaintiff’s failure to prove freedom from comparative fault. The City of New York appealed this ruling.

In determining that comparative fault must be resolved prior to a ruling of partial summary judgment for liability, the court turned to the prior case of Thoma v. Ronai. The 1993 case held that 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. Additionally, the court acknowledged the fact that in a jury trial, the jurors are given instructions as to both the defendant’s liability and the plaintiff’s liability at the same time. Therefore, any determination should be made at the same time. Furthermore, the opinion explained if the court were to grant partial summary judgment, and at a later time the plaintiff is found to be 100% at fault for causing his injuries, then the decision of the jury would conflict with the granting of the partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The opinion notes that this decision does not preclude the granting of summary judgment when there are no facts as to the presence of the plaintiff’s comparative negligence. However, when an issue of fact as to the plaintiff’s comparative negligence has been raised, and the plaintiff has not negated the presence of comparative liability on his or her part, the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment must be denied.

To view the case decision, click here.

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