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Rodriguez v. City of New York

New York Court of Appeals

April 3, 2018

Carlos Rodriguez, Appellant,
v.
City of New York, Respondent.

          Joshua D. Kelner, for appellant.

          Richard Dearing, for respondent.

          Defense Association of New York, Inc., amicus curiae.

          FEINMAN, J.

         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. [1]

         The Appellate Division, among other things, affirmed the denial of plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (Rodriguez v City of New York, 142 A.D.3d 778');">142 A.D.3d 778 [1st Dept 2016]). The majority, relying on this Court's memorandum decision in Thoma v Ronai (82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 736');">82 N.Y.2d 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 A.D.3d at 797 [Acosta, J., dissenting]).

         The Appellate Division granted plaintiff leave to appeal to this Court (lv granted - A.D.3d -, 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?" [2]

         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 (see, e.g., Chianese v Meier, 98 N.Y.2d 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 N.Y.3d 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 N.Y.3d 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. [3]

         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 N.Y.2d 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 N.Y.2d 143');">30 N.Y.2d 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 ...


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