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Court of Appeals Rules Plaintiff Can Be Granted Partial Summary Judgment, Regardless of Own Liability

On April 3, 2018, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that, in accordance with the CPLR, a plaintiff need not “demonstrate the absence of his comparative negligence to be entitled to partial summary judgment as to a defendant’s liability.”


In the case of Rodriguez v. The City of New York, the Court of Appeals answered a question which the Court admitted “perplexed courts for some time.”  The Court answered the question of whether a plaintiff in a comparative negligence case must establish the absence of their own comparative negligence in order to obtain partial summary judgment by holding the plaintiff does not bear that burden.


The plaintiff in the case was a New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS) worker who was injured while placing chains and snow plows on the department’s sanitation trucks.  The injuries occurred as a sanitation truck was backing into the facility to be outfitted with the proper snow equipment. Plaintiff was standing in front of a parked vehicle and a tire rack when a driver began backing the sanitation truck into the garage.  While backing without adequate guidance, the truck began skidding and eventually crashed into the front of the parked vehicle, propelling the vehicle into the plaintiff and pinning him against the rack of tires.  Plaintiff was taken to the hospital and ultimately had to undergo spinal fusion surgeries, a course of lumbar epidural ejections and extensive physical therapy.  He has been determined as permanently disabled from working.


Plaintiff brought an action against the City of New York and moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant’s liability pursuant to CPLR §3212.  Defendant opposed the motion and cross-moved for summary judgment.  Both motions were denied by the New York Supreme Court as they held there were triable issues of fact regarding foreseeability, causation and plaintiff’s comparative negligence.


The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment holding that plaintiff failed to make a prima facie showing that he was free of comparative negligence.  However, the Hon. J. Acosta’s dissent noted plaintiff should not bear the burden to prove freedom of comparative negligence under CPLR article 14 and should have been granted partial summary judgment.


The Court of Appeals agreed with Hon J. Acosta and began their review of the case with a review of the statutory construction of the CPLR.  Particularly, the Court reviewed Article 14-A of the CPLR which contains the State’s codified comparative negligence principles.  The Court found in a review of CPLR 1411 and 1412 that a burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR 1412.  The Court highlighted the fact that New York is a jurisdiction of pure comparative negligence and the lower Court’s rulings were at odds with the plain language of the CPLR by requiring the plaintiff, instead of the defendant, to prove an absence of comparative fault in order to make out a prima facie case on the issue of defendant’s liability.


In remanding the case to the First Department, the Court concluded that the plaintiff need not satisfy the double burden of establishing a prima facie case of the defendant’s liability and the absence of his or her own comparative fault. The Court concluded by holding the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on liability was improperly denied.


To read a full copy of the decision click here.

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