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A Game-Changer For Personal Injury Lawsuits: Recent Changes To New York Summary Judgment Rules Benefit Accident Victims

by JESSE MINC, NEW YORK PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER on May 20, 2018

In April of 2018, the New York Court of Appeals – the highest court in the State of New York – decided the case of Rodriguez v. City of New York, 2018 NY Slip Op. 02287 (N.Y., April 3, 2018) which fundamentally changed the way in which New York personal injury cases are litigated and tried.  The Rodriguez decision can be summarized as follows:  Plaintiffs in New York personal injury lawsuits no longer have to prove that they were not “comparatively negligent” in connection with an accident for a court to award “summary judgment” in their favor on the issue of a defendant’s liability for an accident.  While this may sound like a mere technical point that is only of interest to New York personal injury lawyers, this decision will palpably impact the way in which personal injury victims’ cases play out in court; and, ultimately, will provide a strong strategic advantage to personal injury accident victims who bring cases in New York.

WHAT IS “SUMMARY JUDGMENT” AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? 

“Summary Judgment”, in layman’s terms, refers to a procedure by which a court evaluating a personal injury case determines certain issues in the case, or the entire case, “as a matter of law” in favor of one party or another.  Summary judgment is determined by motion to the court overseeing the personal injury case, which means that the lawyers submit papers to the court and ask it to decide a particular issue, or the entire case, without submitting the case to a jury at trial.  Essentially, when personal injury lawyers make motions for summary judgment, they argue to the court that there are no disputable questions as to the facts surrounding a particular issue (which would require determination by a jury), and that the court itself can decide the issue without submitting the case to a jury.

Summary judgment is a critical tool in the personal injury lawyers’ toolkit to narrow the issues that will be presented at trial, or to prevent the entire personal injury case from ever being decided by a jury at all by obtaining a complete dismissal of the personal injury case.  Generally, the conventional wisdom among New York personal injury lawyers is that the fewer questions that a jury has to answer at trial, the better.  Summary judgment motions in personal injury cases accomplish this by allowing a court to answer key questions in the case that would otherwise be submitted to a jury at trial; these questions are decided before the trial ever begins when summary judgment motions are granted.

At trial, after the close of evidence, a “verdict sheet” is submitted to the jury, and lists a series of questions that the jury must answer.  The answers that the jury provides to each of these questions decide the personal injury case.  Take, as an example, a personal injury case wherein a pedestrian was struck by a truck and seriously injured while walking in a crosswalk in New York City, and the injured pedestrian sues the truck driver for negligence.  Generally, at the trial of such a case, the jury would be asked the following five questions:  (i) Was the defendant truck driver negligent? (ii) Was the negligence of the defendant truck driver a substantial factor in causing the accident?  (iii) Was the injured pedestrian negligent?  (iv) Was the injured pedestrian’s negligence a substantial factor in causing the accident? (v) What are the injured pedestrian’s damages due to the accident?

If, for example, the injured pedestrian’s personal injury lawyer were to move for summary judgment, the lawyer could ask the court to decide the first four questions without submitting them to a jury.  If the motion for summary judgment were successful, at trial, the jury would be instructed that the defendant is responsible for the accident, and the jury would only have to determine the amount of the plaintiff’s damages (i.e., how much money to award the injured accident victim) at trial.  It should be noted that, in personal injury cases in New York, the question of damages is almost never decided without submission to a jury at trial; questions of responsibility (liability) are usually the subject of these motions.

WHAT WAS THE LAW REGARDING “SUMMARY JUDGMENT” IN NEW YORK PERSONAL INJURY CASES BEFORE THE RODRIGUEZ CASE WAS DECIDED?

Before the Rodriguez case was decided in April of 2018, personal injury accident victims would, in order to be granted summary judgment in their favor, have to definitively both that (i) the defendant was negligent and proximately caused the accident, and also that (ii) the plaintiff was free of comparative negligence in connection with the causing of the accident.  Put another way, in the pre-Rodriguez world, personal injury accident victims bore the burden of establishing the negligence of the defendant, as well as establishing their own freedom from comparatively fault, in order to obtain summary judgment in their favor.  In terms of the aforementioned five questions that are submitted to a jury in a personal injury trial, before the Rodriguez decision, the plaintiff had to be able to definitively answer questions (i) and (ii) in the positive, and questions (iii) and (iv) in the negative, to obtain summary judgment and thus be entitled to proceed to a jury trial on the question of damages only (i.e., to have the jury decide only question (v) regarding damages, and to have the judge decide the other four questions without the involvement of a jury).

To understand how the pre-Rodriguez rule worked, take our earlier example of the pedestrian accident with a truck in New York City.  Imagine that the pedestrian had begun to cross the street in the crosswalk after the “Walk/Don’t Walk” signal had changed from the white “Walk” signal to the blinking red “Don’t Walk” signal before the pedestrian had completed crossing the street and before the pedestrian was struck by the truck.  Imagine further that the pedestrian testified that she had not looked in all directions before beginning to cross the street, and that the truck driver testified that he did strike the pedestrian in the crosswalk while making a right turn across the crosswalk.  In this example, though the pedestrian would certainly be able to show that the truck driver was negligent, her failure to look in all directions as well as her having been in the crosswalk when the “Walk” signal was not clearly in her favor might be construed as comparative negligence.  Thus, under the pre-Rodriguez rules of personal injury lawsuits, the injured pedestrian might not have been able to obtain summary judgment, as, though she could easily show the truck driver to have been negligent, she might be unable to definitively prove that she was not negligent.

HOW DOES THE RODRIGUEZ DECISION BENEFIT PERSONAL INJURY ACCIDENT VICTIMS IN NEW YORK? 

The Rodriguez decision benefits personal injury accident victims in that they now can obtain summary judgment on the issue of a negligent defendant’s liability for an accident, even if they are themselves comparatively negligent.  In terms of the five questions discussed above, this means that an injured personal injury accident victim can now ask a court to decide questions (i) and (ii), thus leaving only questions (iii) through (v) for decision by a jury at trial.  This benefits personal injury accident victims by simplifying the questions to be answered by the jury at the personal injury trial, thus reducing the chances of a verdict in favor of a defendant and against a personal injury accident victim.  Also, because the court will instruct the jury at trial that the defendant has already been deemed to be legally responsible for an accident, the personal injury victim will get the benefit of the psychological effect that this type of jury instruction will have on a jury (i.e., the jury will be, in many cases, subtly persuaded to favor the injured victim, as the court will instruct jurors that the defendant has already been found to be responsible for an accident, and this can encourage a jury to be more willing to ignore comparative negligence or award greater damages in some cases).

In summary, the Rodriguez decision, though somewhat technical in nature, does have real consequences for accident victims who bring personal injury cases in New York.  While the ruling is still very new, it seems that, on the whole, it will benefit injured accident victims at trial, and will also be a useful tool in convincing defendants and their insurance carriers to settle personal injury lawsuits without the need for a trial, which is beneficial to all involved.

JESSE MINC, NEW YORK PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER

JESSE MINC, NEW YORK PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER

Jesse Minc, the author of this piece, is a personal injury lawyer and medical malpractice lawyer representing injured accident victims in New York City.  He has made a career of helping the injured obtain just compensation for their injuries, and has been recognized by clients and other attorneys as an aggressive, zealous and skillful advocate for the injured.  You can contact him directly at (718) 354-8000, or visit his website at www.personalinjurylawyersbronx.com, to discuss any personal injury or medical malpractice issues that you or a family member may have.   Jesse Minc offers free consultations and does not charge a legal fee or any expenses to any prospective clients unless he accepts their case and wins their case, whether by settlement or obtaining a judgment after a verdict at trial.

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