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ALVIN W. HARTLEY v. MARTIN RING ET AL. (01/07/69)

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, SPECIAL TERM, QUEENS COUNTY 1969.NY.40009 <http://www.versuslaw.com>; 296 N.Y.S.2d 394; 58 Misc. 2d 618 January 7, 1969 ALVIN W. HARTLEY, PLAINTIFF,v.MARTIN RING ET AL., DEFENDANTS Arye & Kors for plaintiff. Cordes, Purcell, Jewell & Ingrao for defendants. Charles Margett, J. Author: Margett


Charles Margett, J.

Author: Margett

 This motion calls upon the court to consider the question of disclosure of witnesses' identity by the parties to an action in the light of Allen v. Crowell-Collier Pub. Co. (21 N.Y.2d 403).

In Allen, the Court of Appeals held (p. 406) that the words "material and necessary", as contained in CPLR 3101 (subd. [a]), which provides that "There shall be full disclosure of all evidence material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action, regardless of the burden of proof" should "be interpreted liberally to require disclosure, upon request, of any facts bearing on the controversy which will assist preparation for trial by sharpening the issues and reducing delay and prolixity."

In the instant case the defendants move, pursuant to CPLR 3101 for an order requiring the plaintiff to disclose the identity and present whereabouts of any witnesses to the accident giving rise to the instant action. The plaintiff requests that the defendants' motion be denied and, in the alternative, cross-moves for an order directing the plaintiff and defendants to simultaneously furnish the names and addresses of any witnesses obtained by the parties to this action.

Before attempting to judge the effect of Allen on the issue at bar, a brief review of some past cases dealing with that issue might be helpful. As a general rule, prior to the enactment of the CPLR a litigant could not obtain the identity of witnesses known to the other litigants in an action. (Martyn v. Braun, 270 App. Div. 768; Kosiur v. Standard-North Buffalo Foundries, 255 App. Div. 930; Gavin v. New York Contr. Co., 122 App. Div. 643.) Inquiry on an examination was limited to the facts of the occurrence at issue in the lawsuit. There were some exceptions to this rule, however. For example, in McMahon v. Hayes-73rd Corp. (197 Misc. 318) Mr. Justice Cuff, sitting in Supreme Court, Queens County, permitted the plaintiff to obtain the name of a patient who was sharing a hospital room with the plaintiff's intestate when the ceiling fell on the latter. The court held that proof of the fact that the ceiling fell was material and necessary and, accordingly, that the plaintiff needed the identity of the witness in order to prove her case.

In Pistana v. Pangburn (2 A.D.2d 643) the Appellate Division, Third Department, reversed Special Term, Albany County, and directed disclosure of the name of a man who went into the water at a beach in order to bring out the plaintiff's child when the plaintiff sustained injury. The court's theory was that this man was an active participant in the events upon which the plaintiff was relying.

Since the advent of the CPLR, there have been a number of cases which have expanded, to some extent, the limited exceptions to the general rule.

In December, 1963 the Surrogate's Court, Westchester County, in a proceeding to vacate a decree awarding letters of administration directed the petitioner, who allegedly was the commonlaw wife of the decedent, to disclose the names of any witnesses present at any alleged conferences relating to the claimed marriage or to her status as the wife of the decedent or their addresses. Apparently, the theory of the court was that the respondents had no other way of substantiating their claim that the relationship between the decedent and the petitioner was meritricious in its inception, that such relationship continued until the death of the decedent and that subsequent to the date of the alleged marriage the petitioner publicly acknowledged herself as the unremarried widow of another. (Matter of Pennino, 41 Misc. 2d 791, Herman, S.)

In a more recent case, Chavis v. Detarnowski (N. Y. L. J., June 12, 1968, p. 20, col. 3 [Sup. Ct., Westchester County]) a death action, Judge Dillon ordered disclosure of the names of the individuals who were at a party at the home of the defendant driver on the evening of the accident. At issue was the amount of alcohol consumed by the defendant. Disclosure was permitted on the theory that in a death action, as distinguished from an ordinary negligence case, there is no plaintiff to assist in the investigation and testify at the time of the trial.

There have been a number of recent cases which have adopted and have extended the "active participant" theory first expressed in Pistana (supra). O'Dea v. City of Albany (27 A.D.2d 11) falls in this category. In that case the infant plaintiff, while at a playground, was struck on the back of the head by a portion of a maypole upon which the boy behind him was swinging when that boy let it go. The court permitted discovery of the name of the other boy, asserting that he was an active participant in the incident upon which the litigation was based and that he was so closely related to the accident that his testimony was essential in establishing its happening. Other cases which used the "active participant" theory were Votey v. New York City Tr. Auth. (46 Misc. 2d 554) where the plaintiff was permitted to obtain the identity and address of a passenger on a subway train who assisted her after the accident and whose name had been furnished to the conductor on the train at the time the accident was reported; Spano v. Fralick (48 Misc. 2d 375) which directed disclosure to a co-defendant of the name and address of a passenger in an automobile operated by another defendant on the ground that under the circumstances of the case the said passenger was a person present at a critical moment who participated in the event itself; and Holihan v. Regina Corp. (54 Misc 264) where the plaintiff was injured while demonstrating a machine to customers in his store and upon an examination before trial the plaintiff refused to divulge the names of those customers to the defendant. The court, citing Rios v. Donovan (21 A.D.2d 409), held that the defendant is entitled to the names of the customers who were present at the time the accident occurred and that these witnesses might be deemed participants in the demonstration. This theory was cited in Coleman v. Kirkey (53 Misc. 2d 947) where the court refused to permit disclosure of the name of a witness on the ground that he was not "an active participant".

Another theory which has been used in a number of cases as the basis of granting disclosure of witnesses' names was that the person seeking disclosure was physically unable to obtain the names of witnesses at the scene of an accident while the other party was able to obtain such names. In this category may be found Majchrzak v. Hagerty (49 Misc. 2d 1027) where the defendant admittedly obtained such names at the accident scene but the plaintiff, because of the injuries she sustained, was unable to do the same and an extensive investigation on her part failed to disclose the names of any witnesses; Lauren v. Gollin (54 Misc. 2d 512) where the plaintiffs were taken from the scene of an accident in an unconscious state and three persons gave their names and addresses as witnesses at the said scene; Maffeo v. Comtois (55 Misc. 2d 779) where the defendant at the scene of the accident obtained the name and address of a driver of a car which was proceeding behind his car but the plaintiff, who was removed from the scene by ambulance to a hospital, was not represented and was not physically or mentally able to obtain the name of the witness; and Dickinson v. Chock full O' Nuts (57 Misc. 2d 991) where the plaintiff allegedly slipped and fell on the floor of defendant's store and, due to the seriousness of her injuries, she was unable to obtain the names of defendant's employees who witnessed the accident.

Disclosure has been ordered in some cases which do not fit clearly into one of the foregoing categories. In Rivera v. Stewart (51 Misc. 2d 647) the defendant was ordered to disclose, as part of the facts and circumstances of the accident, the names and addresses of all persons observed by her at the scene of the accident. The court relied heavily upon Rios v. Donovan (supra), one of the leading cases in this area. In Rios it was suggested that the names of witnesses might be available but that the proper procedure would be to make inquiry at an examination before trial as to the persons present at the time of the accident. The Rivera rule permitting discovery of all persons at the scene of the accident was followed in Sanfilipo v. Baptist Temple (52 Misc. 2d 767) and approved in Dickinson v. Chock Full O' Nuts (supra) and Maffeo v. Comtois (supra).

Neal v. Spence (53 Misc. 2d 518) was a case in which disclosure was sought of the name of a passenger on a motorcycle. Here the court acknowledged that while the passenger was not an "active participant" he was, nevertheless, a "participant" and stated at page 520 that "Though it cannot be ascertained if the testimony of such person will be essential or material and necessary in establishing the happening of the accident, the identity of the passenger, under our liberal disclosure practice, should be considered material and necessary." The decision of the case seems to be based upon the theory set forth in 39 St. John's Law Review 212 (1964), Biannual Survey of New York Practice, that "the allowance of a liberal disclosure of witnesses' names permits the parties to make a thorough assessment of the case and the possibilities of success on trial. To the extent that disclosure of names of witnesses results in the settlement of cases before trial which otherwise would have gone to trial, disclosure will result in a great saving of precious time and expense. Hence, a major purpose of the CPLR will have been realized."

It is stated in Weinstein-Korn-Miller, New York Civil Practice (Vol. 3, par. 3101.11), which cites CPLR 104 and 3101, that "the trend is most definitely toward a more liberal rule." That treatise expresses the opinion that "Where the identity of the witness is gained through direct observation at the time of the event, it should be subject to disclosure regardless of whether the witness was a so called participant or a passive observer." The reasons expressed in the afore-mentioned commentary were relied on for the decision in Sherman v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Tr. Operating Auth. (N. Y. L. J., Sept. 26, 1968, p. 2, col. 6, ...


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