3212 [Partial summary judgment on liability]

Short version: "To be entitled to partial summary judgment a plaintiff does not bear the double burden of establishing a prima facie case of defendant's liability and the absence of his or her own comparative fault."

Rodriguez v City of New York, 2018 NY Slip Op 02287 [2018]

This appeal requires us to answer a question that has perplexed courts for some time: Whether a plaintiff is entitled to partial summary judgment on the issue of a defendant's liability, when, as here, defendant has arguably raised an issue of fact regarding plaintiff's comparative negligence. Stated differently, to obtain partial summary judgment in a comparative negligence case, must plaintiffs establish the absence of their own comparative negligence. We hold that a plaintiff does not bear that burden.

I.

Plaintiff Carlos Rodriguez was employed by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS) as a garage utility worker. He was injured while "outfitting" sanitation trucks with tire chains and plows to enable them to clear the streets of snow and ice. The following facts are uncontradicted: On a snowy winter day, plaintiff and his two coworkers were tasked with outfitting sanitation trucks with tire chains and plows at the Manhattan 5 facility. Typically, the driver backs the truck into one of the garage bays, and the driver and other members of the team "dress" the truck. One person acts as a guide, assisting the driver by providing directions through appropriate hand signals while standing on the passenger's side of the truck. Once the truck is safely parked in the garage, the driver, the guide, and the third member of the team (here, plaintiff) place chains on the truck's tires.

At the time of his accident, plaintiff was standing between the front of a parked Toyota Prius and a rack of tires outside of the garage bay while the driver began backing the sanitation truck into the garage. The guide, at some point, stood on the driver's side of the sanitation truck while directing the driver in violation of established DOS safety practices. The sanitation truck began skidding and eventually crashed into the front of the parked Toyota Prius, propelling the car into plaintiff and pinning him up against the rack of tires. Plaintiff was taken to the hospital and ultimately had to undergo spinal fusion surgery, a course of lumbar epidural steroid injections, and extensive physical therapy. He is permanently disabled from working.

Plaintiff commenced this negligence action against the City of New York. After discovery, he 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 in its favor. Supreme Court denied both motions. In denying plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment, Supreme Court held that there were triable issues of fact regarding foreseeability, causation, and plaintiff's comparative negligence.[FN1]

The Appellate Division, among other things, affirmed the denial of plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (Rodriguez v City of New York, 142 AD3d 778 [1st Dept 2016]). The majority, relying on this Court's memorandum decision in Thoma v Ronai (82 NY2d 736 [1993]), held that plaintiff was not entitled to partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, because he failed to make a prima facie showing that he was free of comparative negligence. The dissent, relying on the language and purpose of CPLR article 14-A, would have held that plaintiff does not bear the burden of disproving the affirmative defense of comparative negligence, and thus, plaintiff should have been granted partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant's liability (Rodriguez, 142 AD3d at 797 [Acosta, J., dissenting]).

The Appellate Division granted plaintiff leave to appeal to this Court (lv granted — AD3d &mdash, 2016 NY Slip Op 96039[U] [1st Dept 2016]), certifying the following question: "Was the order of the Supreme Court, as affirmed by this Court, properly made?"[FN2]

II.

Whether a plaintiff must demonstrate the absence of his or her own comparative negligence to be entitled to partial summary judgment as to a defendant's liability is a question of statutory construction of the CPLR. The usual rules of statutory construction apply to the provisions of the CPLR (seee.g.Chianese v Meier, 98 NY2d 270, 275 [2002]). "In matters of statutory interpretation, our primary consideration is to discern and give effect to the Legislature's intention" (Matter of Albany Law School v New York State Off. of Mental Retardation & Dev. Disabilities, 19 NY3d 106, 120 [2012]). We look "first to the plain language of the statute[ ] as the best evidence of legislative intent" (Matter of Malta Town Ctr. I, Ltd. v Town of Malta Bd. of Assessment Review, 3 NY3d 563, 568 [2004]).

CPLR 3212, which governs summary judgment motions, provides that "[t]he motion shall be granted if . . . the cause of action . . . [is] established sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law in directing judgment in favor of any party" (CPLR 3212[b]). The motion for summary judgment must also "show that there is no defense to the cause of action" (id.). Further, subsection [c] of the same section sets forth the procedure for obtaining partial summary judgment and states that "[i]f it appears that the only triable issues of fact arising on a motion for summary judgment relate to the amount or extent of damages . . . the court may, when appropriate for the expeditious disposition of the controversy, order an immediate trial of such issues of fact raised by the motion" (CPLR 3212[c]).

Article 14-A of the CPLR contains our State's codified comparative negligence principles. CPLR 1411 provides that:

"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."

(CPLR 1411 [emphasis added]). CPLR 1412 further states that "[c]ulpable conduct claimed in diminution of damages, in accordance with [CPLR 1411], shall be an affirmative defense to be pleaded and proved by the party asserting the defense."

Placing the burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with the plain language of CPLR 1412. In 1975, New York adopted a system of pure comparative negligence, and, in so doing, directed courts to consider a plaintiff's comparative fault only when considering the amount of damages a defendant owes to plaintiff. The approach urged by defendant is therefore at odds with the plain language of CPLR 1412, because it flips the burden, 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.[FN3]

Defendant's approach also defies the plain language of CPLR 1411, and, if adopted, would permit a possible windfall to defendants. CPLR 1411 explicitly provides that "[i]n any action to recover damages for personal injury . . . the culpable conduct attributable to the [plaintiff] . . . shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion . . . attributable to the claimant." For example, assuming in a hypothetical case a defendant's negligence could be established as a matter of law because defendant's conduct was in violation of a statute (see PJI 2:26) and further assuming plaintiff was denied partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant's negligence because plaintiff failed to establish the absence of his or her own comparative negligence, the jury would be permitted to decide the question of whether defendant was negligent and whether defendant's negligence proximately caused plaintiff's injuries. If the jury answers in the negative on the question of defendant's negligence, the plaintiff would be barred from recovery even though defendant's negligence was established as a matter of law and in contradiction to the plain language of CPLR 1411. Such a windfall to a defendant would violate Section 1411's mandate that a plaintiff's comparative negligence "shall not bar recovery" and should only go to the diminution of damages recoverable by plaintiff. Furthermore, it is no answer to this conundrum that the trial court could set aside the verdict. The whole purpose of partial summary judgment is to streamline and focus the factfinder on the issues that need resolution, and avoid having juries make findings that are contrary to law.

Defendant's attempts to rely on CPLR 3212's plain language in support of its preferred approach are also unavailing. Specifically, defendant points to CPLR 3212(b), which provides; "[a] motion for summary judgment shall . . . show that there is no defense to the cause of action." Defendant's approach would have us consider comparative fault a defense. But, comparative negligence is not a defense to the cause of action of negligence, because it is not a defense to any element (duty, breach, causation) of plaintiff's prima facie cause of action for negligence, and as CPLR 1411 plainly states, is not a bar to plaintiff's recovery, but rather a diminishment of the amount of damages.

The approach we adopt is also supported by the legislative history of article 14-A. (see Tompkins Cty. Support Collection Unit ex rel. Chamberlin v Chamberlin, 99 NY2d 328, 335 [2003] ["[T]he legislative history of an enactment may also be relevant and is not to be ignored, even if words be clear."] [quotations and citations omitted]). Article 14-A's enactment was proposed by the 1975 Judicial Conference of the State of New York (the Conference) in response to this Court's decision in Dole v Dow Chemical Co. (30 NY2d 143 [1972]), which first provided for the apportionment of negligent responsibility among joint tortfeasors. In proposing the section which later became CPLR 1411, the Conference specifically noted that neither the defense of contributory negligence or assumption of risk "shall continue to serve as complete defenses" in negligence actions (20th Ann Rep of NY Jud Conf at 240). In proposing the section which became CPLR 1412, the Conference urged the adoption of the then-majority rule in this country, which provided that "in all negligence actions . . . the defendant claiming contributory negligence of the plaintiff has the burden of showing it" (id. at 245). The Conference also observed that the "burden of pleading and burden of proof are usually parallel" and that "[t]his article may be viewed as having created a partial defense, the effect of which is to mitigate damages, and such defenses traditionally must be pleaded affirmatively" (id. at 246).

When article 14-A was proposed in the Legislature, the Introducer's Memorandum before the New York Assembly noted that the then-current system of traditional contributory negligence had "become an obstacle to the dispensing of substantial justice" (Assembly Introducer's Mem in Support, Bill Jacket, L 1975, ch 69 at 5 — 7). The purpose of the law was to bring "New York law into conformity with the majority rule and represents the culmination of the gradual but persistent erosion of the rule that freedom from contributory negligence must be pleaded and proven by the plaintiff" (id., citing Rossman v La Grega, 28 NY2d 300, 304 [1971]). 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.[FN4]

Resolution of the issue before us necessarily turns on the interpretation and interplay of these various CPLR provisions. In Thoma v Ronai, 82 NY2d 736 [1993], this Court held that the plaintiff there did not meet her burden of demonstrating the absence of any material fact; "a factual question of her reasonable care" existed, and thus [plaintiff] was properly denied summary judgment (id. at 737). However, Thoma never addressed the precise question we now confront. The decision itself never considered the import of article 14-A, and a review of the briefs publicly filed in that case reveal that the plaintiff proceeded on the assumption that if a question of fact existed as to her negligence, summary judgment on the issue of liability would be denied. The plaintiff in Thoma, in her limited submissions to this Court, maintained that "[t]he crux of the case is the existence, as a matter of law, of any question of culpable conduct (contributory negligence) by the Plaintiff that would warrant the Trial Court's denial of summary judgment pursuant to C.P.L.R. 3212 on the issue of the Defendant's liability" (Thoma, App's Br. at 1). Thus, to the extent that the Departments of the Appellate Division have interpreted Thoma as explicitly holding that a plaintiff must show an absence of comparative fault in order to obtain partial summary judgment on liability, such a reading of Thoma is mistaken (see Global Reinsurance Corp. v Century Indemnity Co., 30 NY3d 508, 517 [2017] ["[T]he Court's holding comprises only those statements of law which address issues which were presented to the [Court] for determination.'"], quoting Village of Kiryas Joel v County of Orange, 144 AD3d 895, 900 [2d Dept 2016]).[FN5]

On this appeal, plaintiff raises the issue not addressed in Thoma. Plaintiff contends, even assuming there is an issue of fact regarding his comparative fault, that he is entitled to partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant's liability. Defendant would have us follow the line of cases that hold that plaintiff bears the burden of disproving comparative fault as a component of establishing his prima facie entitlement to partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant's liability. Defendant points to various instances of plaintiff's conduct in this case and asserts that plaintiff was comparatively negligent. We agree with plaintiff that to obtain partial summary judgment on defendant's liability he does not have to demonstrate the absence of his own comparative fault.

We also reject defendant's contention that granting the plaintiff partial summary judgment on defendant's liability serves no practical purpose. A principal rationale of partial summary judgment is to narrow the number of issues presented to the jury (see Janos v Peck, 21 AD2d 529, 531 [1964], affd 15 NY2d 509 [1964]). In a typical comparative negligence trial, the jury is asked to answer five questions:

  1. Was the defendant negligent?
  2. Was defendant's negligence a substantial factor in causing [the injury or the accident]?
  3. Was plaintiff negligent?
  4. Was plaintiff's negligence a substantial factor in causing (his or her) own injuries?
  5. What was the percentage of fault of the defendant and what was the percentage of fault of the plaintiff?

(PJI 2:36). Where plaintiff has already established defendant's liability as a matter of law, granting plaintiff partial judgment eliminates the first two questions submitted to the jury, thereby serving the beneficial purpose of focusing the jury on questions and issues that are in dispute.

Nor do we agree with defendant that what it characterizes as bifurcation of the issues of defendant's liability from plaintiff's liability runs counter to the Pattern Jury Instructions. When a defendant's liability is established as a matter of law before trial, the jury must still determine whether the plaintiff was negligent and whether such negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff's injuries. If so, the comparative fault of each party is then apportioned by the jury. Therefore, the jury is still tasked with considering the plaintiff's and defendant's culpability together. As a practical matter, a trial court will instruct the jury in a modified version of Pattern Jury Instruction 1:2B that the issue of defendant's negligence, and in some cases, the related proximate cause question, have been previously determined as a matter of law. Trial courts are experienced in crafting such instructions, for example when liability has already been determined in a bifurcated trial, or when an Appellate Division upholds a liability determination and remands solely for a recalculation of damages, or a trial on damages has been ordered pursuant to CPLR 3212(c).

III.

To be entitled to partial summary judgment a plaintiff does not bear the double burden of establishing a prima facie case of defendant's liability and the absence of his or her own comparative fault. Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division, insofar as appealed from, should be reversed, with costs, and the case remitted to the Appellate Division for consideration of issues raised but not determined on the appeal to that court and the certified question answered in the negative.

There is a dissent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s