In a decision issued on April 3, 2018, the New York State Court of Appeals changed the landscape for dispositive motion practice in personal injury actions. Although there had previously been some lack of uniformity in the Appellate Divisions regarding this issue, a number of cases had clearly held that a plaintiff was not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of liability unless the plaintiff proved, as a matter of law, that he or she was free from comparative negligence.
These cases usually relied upon the Court of Appeals’ 1993 decision in Thoma v. Ronai, 82 N.Y.2d 736 (1993). In Rodriguez v. City of New York, 31 N.Y.3d 312 (2018), however, the Court of Appeals expressly held that a plaintiff does not need to establish the absence of his or her own comparative negligence to obtain partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. The Court of Appeals relied upon the statutory language of CPLR §§ 1411 and 1412 and the legislative history of CPLR Article 14, and also concluded that the former approach could result in a possible windfall to defendants.
The Court distinguished its prior decision in Thoma by concluding that the issue it was deciding in Rodriguez was not before the Court in Thoma, since the plaintiff in Thoma had assumed that if there were a question of fact regarding her comparative negligence, she was not entitled to summary judgment on liability. One of the rationales the Court offered for its decision in Rodriguez was that it would narrow the issues that must be presented to a jury if a case goes to trial.
Under Rodriguez, however, the only issue that will be taken from the jury is the issue of the defendant’s liability. If the plaintiff has obtained summary judgment in his or her favor on liability but there is proof of comparative negligence, both sides will still have to offer proof at trial regarding the accident itself so that the jury can determine whether the plaintiff was also at fault and whether the plaintiff’s negligence was a proximate cause of the accident.
Rodriguez, therefore, is a critical case for anyone practicing personal injury law to be aware of before their cases move to the dispositive motion stage.