Warning: This blog may be a little too “legalese” for many of my readers, but it is an important development in New York personal injury law, so I feel compelled to write about it for my many lawyer-readers and others with a more-than-casual interest in the law. The new development is a case from New York’s top Court — the Court of Appeals — called “Rodriguez v. City of New York”.
The particular facts of that case don’t matter for our purpose here. So I am not even going to talk about them. Here’s what you need to know: Whenever we New York personal injury lawyers sue a defendant for negligence, there comes a point, usually after depositions, when we consider making a “summary judgment motion on liability”. That means we are asking the Judge – without a jury – to rule that the evidence so clearly shows the defendant was negligent that the Judge – without even giving the case to the jury to consider – should rule that the defendant was negligent and is liable to our client, the plaintiff. At that point, if we get “summary judgment on liability” in our favor, we gain several advantages.
First, the only remaining issue now for a jury to decide is the amount of “damages”, in other words, how much is the injury worth? We get to go to the jury and tell them “the judge has already found the defendant liable for what he did to our client and now you only have to consider HOW MUCH he owes our client, not WHETHER he owes our client.” Huge advantage. It’s like starting a football game with a three-touchdown head start.
Another advantage in New York State is that the interest on the amount the jury eventually decides defendant owes plaintiff starts running at 9% annually as soon as we get summary judgment. So, for example, if the judge gives me summary judgment on liability on an injury case in January, and the case goes to trial in front of a jury in December, and the jury says in December that the damages are $100,000, I just made an extra $9,000 for my client. Yes, 9% annual interest on $100,000 is $9,000. So now the $100,000 verdict converts to a $109,000 verdict (because of the added interest).
So yes, we like getting summary judgment on liability for our clients.
One of the problems has been, though, that most courts were unwilling to give us summary judgment on liability unless we could prove that our client, the plaintiff, in no way contributed to his own accident. If he did contribute, even a little, that’s called “comparative negligence”. Most courts have found that if there is any reasonable inference that there was “comparative negligence”, then plaintiff could not get summary judgment. Instead the jury had to decide who was negligent and how much each side was negligent in causing the accident.
Let’s take some examples to show how, before this recent Rodriguez case, we could not get summary judgment. Say the defendant ran a red light. As he drove through the intersection against the red light, my client “t-boned” his car. In the past, if I made a motion for summary judgment, asking the Judge to find the defendant liable, the insurance company lawyer would argue that the judge could not give me summary judgment because the plaintiff (my client) might have been negligent or careless in failing to notice the defendant going through the red light and in failing to react to it, by braking in time for example. If the judge found there was enough evidence that this was so, he would deny my motion for summary judgment. The jury would then have to determine “liability” as well as “comparative negligence” at trial and, if it found the defendant liable at all, it would then have to decide how much the case was worth.
Here’s another example: Defendant did not salt the entrance way to his store and as a result my client slipped and fell. If I made my motion for summary judgment, the insurance company would have argued that I could not get summary judgment because there was an issue a jury needed to decide as to whether my client was also partially to blame for not spotting the ice and avoiding it.
But the Rodriguez case changes all this. In Rodriguez the Court decided once and for all that a plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment on liability if he proves defendant’s liability even if there are questions as to whether plaintiff was also at fault (comparatively negligent) for causing the accident. It was a close vote: 4 judges were in the majority and 3 dissented.
Stated otherwise, the new rule is that as long as I can show that defendant was clearly negligent and that his negligence was at least in part the cause of my client’s injuries, I get summary judgment, regardless of whether my client was also partially responsible.
Why do I love this decision? Because it tilts the playing field in favor of injured plaintiffs – my clients – so that I can get them more money, earlier, and with less litigation. Now when I have a case where my client may be deemed partially to blame, I will nevertheless be able to get the Court to grant my summary judgment motion. This will get the interest running on the money that the jury will eventually award my client. The insurance company will know that interest is running at 9% and will likely want to settle for more and more quickly to avoid that “tic-tic-tic” of the interest clock.
And if the insurance company does not settle with me for a fair number, I will go to trial with the confidence of knowing “liability is locked up” and all I have to do is fight off the defendant’s arguments that my client was partially to blame and also explain to the jury why my client’s case is worth what it is worth rather than the ridiculously low amount of money the insurance company lawyer says it is worth.
The Rodriguez decision might be better understood by looking at the six questions a jury is generally asked to decide after hearing a negligence trial. As you can see, I struck out the first two questions. That’s the result of Rodriguez. Under Rodriguez, if the plaintiff prevails in her summary judgment motion, the first two questions will have already been decided by a judge before my case even gets to the jury, so that the jury will only have to consider questions 3 through 6:
- Was the defendant negligent?
- Was defendant’s negligence a substantial factor in causing [the injury or the accident]?
- Was plaintiff negligent?
- Was plaintiff’s negligence a substantial factor in causing (his or her) own injuries?
- What was the percentage of fault of the defendant and what was the percentage of fault of the plaintiff?
- What is fair compensation for plaintiff’s injuries?
Getting summary judgment on the issue of a defendant’s liability puts me and my clients in a much stronger position. And I like being in a strong position. It makes my case settle earlier, and for more, and even if it doesn’t, it is likely to get us a better result at trial.
So three cheers for New York’s Court of Appeals!