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Rodriguez v. City of New York – Court of Appeals decision is adverse to defense counsel’s ability to defend comparative negligence cases; holds that plaintiffs may obtain summary judgment on liability without establishing the absence of their own negligence

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By:      Roy Anderson, Esq.
            Associate, New York
Date:   April 5, 2018

The Court of Appeals dealt a significant blow to defense counsel in a recent decision, Carlos Rodriguez v. City of New York (2018), by holding that plaintiffs do not bear the burden of first establishing the absence of their own comparative negligence to obtain partial summary judgment as to liability in a negligence case.  The Rodriguez decision arguably overrules Thoma v. Ronai, 189 A.D. 2d 635 (1st Dep’t 1993) aff’d 82 N.Y. 2d 736 (1993) and its progeny, which for two decades have been cited for the proposition that Plaintiffs moving for summary judgment on liability bear the burden of demonstrating the absence of any material issue of fact concerning their comparative negligence.

In Rodriguez, the plaintiff was employed by the City of New York as a garage utility worker.  He was injured while working in a garage “outfitting” sanitation trucks with tire chains and plows.  An out-of-control sanitation truck skidded on ice and crashed into a car in the garage which then pinned the plaintiff up against a rack of tires.  He sustained bodily injuries which necessitated a spinal fusion surgery and rendered him permanently disabled from working.

After discovery, plaintiff and the City of New York moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability.  Plaintiff’s motion argued that even if there was an issue of fact with respect to his comparative fault, he was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of Defendant’s liability.  The Supreme Court denied both motions and held that there were triable issues of fact regarding foreseeability, causation, and plaintiff’s comparative negligence.  The First Department relied on Thoma and affirmed the denial of plaintiff’s motion because he failed to make a prima facie showing that he was free of comparative negligence.  In a split decision, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that placing the burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with New York’s system of pure comparative negligence, which was adopted in 1975 and is codified in Article 14-A, Sections 1411 and 1412 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”).  The Court explained that in a pure comparative negligence state, such as New York, courts are directed to consider a plaintiff’s comparative fault only when considering damages; therefore, the Rodriguez decision gives effect to the plain language and legislative intent of Sections 1411 and 1412.

Section 1411 provides, in relevant part, that in an action for personal injuries a plaintiff’s culpable conduct “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 bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.”  Section 1412 further provides 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.”

The Rodriguez opinion explains that the legislature’s intent in enacting Sections 1411 and 1412 was “to bring New York law into conformity with the majority rule” which is that “a plaintiff’s comparative negligence is not a complete defense to be pleaded and proven by the plaintiff, but rather is only relevant to the mitigation of plaintiff’s damages and should be pleaded and proven by the defendant.”  Thus, the Court of Appeals held that “[p]lacing the burden on the plaintiff to show an absence of comparative fault is inconsistent with the language of CPLR 1412.”  The Court also rejected the City of New York’s argument that comparative fault should be considered a defense because “it is not a defense to any element (breach, duty, causation) of plaintiff’s prima facie cause of action for negligence.”

Significantly, Rodriguez purports to distinguish – without explicitly overruling – Thoma, because in that case the First Department did not address the significance of Article 14-A and the plaintiff effectively conceded that if she failed to establish the absence of a material fact as to her negligence then summary judgment on the issue of liability would be denied.  Conversely, the Rodriguez plaintiff explicitly argued that he was entitled to summary judgment, even if there was an issue of fact regarding his comparative fault. 

The Rodriguez dissent rejects the majority’s reasoning and argues that the rule in New York is and should remain “that a plaintiff must demonstrate the absence of issues of fact concerning both defendant’s negligence and its own comparative fault in order to obtain summary judgment.”  The dissent further rejects that the Court was not overruling Thoma because “[s]ince Thoma, each Department has held that a plaintiff is precluded from obtaining summary judgment where issues of fact exist concerning comparative fault.”  The dissent also calls attention to the inequity of assessing a percentage of plaintiff’s culpability distinct from the defendant’s and noted that “[d]eterminations of degrees of fault should be made as a whole, and assessing one party’s fault with a preconceived idea of the other party’s liability is inherently unfair.”

It is not hard to imagine the injurious effect that Rodriguez will have on defendants when it comes time for juries to apportion liability.  As articulated by the dissent, defendants will effectively be “entering the batter’s box with two strikes already called.”


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MOLD PERSONAL INJURY LAWSUITS: WHY DO THEY CONTINUE? By Arthur P. Xanthos

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In our August 6, 2014 article, we explained the import of the New York State Court of Appeals' Cornell decision -- without medical community acceptance of causation between mold and bodily injury, courts in New York State will dismiss lawsuits for bodily injury premised on mold.

Since the Cornell decision came down, this Firm has used it twice to dismiss mold-related bodily injury claims against our clients: first in June of 2014 in Benton v. 80 Cranberry, and now in August of 2016 in a case called Sylla-ba v. The Colton Condominium. (Both of these decisions can be accessed on the Firm's website, www.gartnerbloom.com, under Publications.)  In Sylla-ba, Justice Cynthia Kern reiterated what the Court of Appeals held: an 'association' between mold and the alleged symptoms of a plaintiff is not the same as 'causation' between them; therefore, proving that there is such an association is insufficient for the bodily injury claims to survive dismissal.  

Cornell should have resulted in a sharp drop in the number of mold-related personal injury lawsuits brought in New York's state courts; yet these lawsuits continue to be brought in roughly the same numbers as before Cornell. We suspect the reasons for this counter-intuitive statistic are, (1) the plaintiffs' bar's unfamiliarity with the 2014 Cornell decision (viz., the flawed belief that if you can get one doctor to say 'mold caused the plaintiff's illness', that such is sufficient), (2) the use of a mold-related bodily injury claim as an 'add on' claim to bolster the settlement value of the case, and (3) publication in the popular press of other states' mold verdicts and settlements.

So, we repeat what we wrote in our August 6, 2014 entry: Absent a major change in the science of mold illness, the next few years will see many more summary judgment decisions in favor of land owners and against mold plaintiffs.

                                                         -APX 8/15/2016
        
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New York City Building Owners and the Legionella Outbreak, by Arthur P. Xanthos

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This past week has seen an outbreak of legionella in buildings in the South Bronx section of New York City.  Legionella is the bacterium that causes legionnaires disease and flourishes in the water of air conditioning and central heating systems. Utmost concern is for the health and safety of building residents, and pending New York City regulations address this concern by imposing on building owners new registration, testing, and maintenance requirements. Given the number of deaths and hospitalizations already reported, building owners and their insurers should be aware of the following facts and suggestions:

1. There have been fewer than a dozen reported legionella/personal injury decisions in New York State in the last decade, and far fewer such decisions involving residential buildings. As in any toxic tort lawsuit, the legionella claimant will have the burden of proving that the building owner negligently allowed a toxin to develop (namely, legionella), and that the claimant was exposed to the toxin in an amount that caused injury to the claimant -- two very difficult though not impossible burdens to meet. (For a detailed discussion of the burden of proving causation in toxic tort lawsuits, see our prior blog entry titled Mold up in the Air: Settled.)

2. A building owner must report to its insurance carrier immediately any notice of bodily injury or property damage arising from the outbreak. A building owner should also notify its HVAC/cooling tower contractor, and the insurer for that contractor, of the incident(s).

3. The insurance carrier for its part must assemble a pre-lawsuit response team -- legal, engineering, medical, and environmental -- to investigate the premises and establish the facts.

4. New York City is now inspecting and testing building cooling systems. As these test results will be admissible in any subsequent lawsuit, building owners (or, preferably, their insurance carriers) should retain environmental consultants to photograph, monitor, and report on how the City performs the testing.

5. Finally, if the cooling tower or HVAC system is going to be dismantled or modified significantly, care should be taken to avoid a spoliation penalty.  (For a detailed discussion of this topic, see our prior blog entry titled Spoiling the Evidence, Spoiling the Case.) 

-APX 8/10/15





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Arbitrating Indemnity Issues During the Pendency of a Supreme Court Action, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our last article warned of a pitfall with the traditional arbitration clause - ‎an arbitrator may end up with a power (e.g., the power to award punitive damages) that was never intended by the parties. Here we highlight another arbitration issue that has arisen several times in our practice.

Assume an Owner (O) hires a General Contractor (GC) to do work on a construction site, and the standard AIA form contract is executed containing a mandatory arbitration clause providing that "all disputes between the parties arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by binding arbitration under then applicable commercial arbitration rules". Plaintiff-worker (P) trips and falls while working on the site and sues both O and GC, alleging ‎negligence, as well as violations of the New York State Labor Law (the "Lawsuit"). O and GC each answer the Lawsuit and assert cross-claims against each other for contribution, defense, and indemnification.

All of the above is standard fare and occurs almost reflexively. But then something unusual happens: O's counsel files an arbitration demand, demanding that ‎GC arbitrate the issue of whether GC owes O defense and indemnification in the Lawsuit (the "Arbitration"). Inter-defendant arbitration of an indemnity obligation in the context of a pending personal injury lawsuit is an unusual tactic, and raises a host of procedural problems. For example, what happens to the rest of the case as the arbitration proceeds? What if the arbitration requires the resolution of other issues that have not yet been decided by the court? What if the arbitration takes the case beyond “standards and goals”? New York courts have come up with methods of dealing with the procedural problems. See, e.g., Weiss v Nath, 97 A.D.3d 661, 664 (2d Dep't 2012); County Glass & Metal Installers, Inc. v. Pavarini McGovern, LLC, 65 A.D.3d 940, 940-941 (1st Dep't 2009); and 624 Art Holdings, LLC v. Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6440, 26-27 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 7, 2012). But even assuming counsel is willing to navigate the attendant procedural problems, in our opinion inter-defendant Arbitration of part of a Supreme Court action can only be justified in one of two circumstances:

1. Where a quicker resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit, and that speed is worth the arbitration fees; and/or
2. Where a more favorable resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit.

It is likely that New York counsel always will conclude that a quicker resolution would occur in the Arbitration. Counsel could also conclude that a more favorable resolution would occur in the Arbitration under the following scenarios:

1. If the rules applicable to the Arbitration (but not applicable to the Lawsuit) generate a better result -- of course then Arbitration would be advisable. But to make this decision counsel must retrieve the applicable Arbitration rules, review them for application to the indemnity issue, and compare the result with that obtained via the Lawsuit.
2. If the particular arbitrator used comes from a construction background and therefore knows or “feels” that such indemnity obligations should regularly be enforced -- here too Arbitration would be advisable.

So the conclusions are these: If the Arbitration would yield a more favorable result, choose inter-defendant arbitration regardless of the fees for arbitration. If the arbitration would yield a quicker result, and a result no worse than that yielded in Supreme Court, choose to arbitrate if you are willing to pay the cost to arbitrate in exchange for a speedier decision. In all other cases, bide your time and wait for the assigned Justice to make the decision on summary judgment.

APX 10/8/14
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Mold Up in the Air: Settled, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our January 16, 2014 entry entitled “Mold Up in the Air” discussed the pending appeal of Cornell v. 350 West 51st St. Realty LLC, a case which concerned whether a plaintiff could get to a jury on her claim that indoor residential mold caused her respiratory injuries. We pointed out that the Court of Appeal’s questioning at oral argument portended a potential reversal and defeat for mold plaintiffs. And that is in fact what has happened. The Court of Appeals (2014 NY Slip Op 02096) granted the defendant landlord and coop summary judgment, and dismissed the bodily injury claims of the Cornell plaintiff. The decision is a difficult read, but the lessons yielded are clear.

Some background: the plaintiff in Cornell alleged that throughout her occupancy of a co-op apartment, the co-op building's "basement was in a wet, damp, musty condition"; that the radiator in her apartment's living room "leaked on numerous occasions" and "continued to leak and also released steam into the Apartment" despite the co-op’s attempts at repair; that in July 2003 she first noticed and notified the co-op that "there was mold growing in the [apartment's] bathroom," but the co-op "ignored" this condition; and that beginning in the first week of October, 2003, the landlord and/or its contractor performed demolition and/or construction work in the basement of the co-op building, permitting noxious dust, dirt, mold and debris to be released, which infiltrated her first-floor apartment.  What were her injuries? The Cornell plaintiff claimed that "[i]mmediately after" the landlord and/or its contractor performed the work in the basement, she became dizzy, disoriented, covered with rashes, unable to breathe, light-headed, congested, experienced tightness in her chest, had severe headaches, had shortness of breath, had a metallic taste in her mouth, and experienced other physical symptoms.

At the Frye hearing (brought on by defense motion), the defendants used an immunologist/epidemiologist who assessed plaintiff’s claim that "a significant portion of her physical and psychological problems is related to adverse reactions stemming from exposures to molds," and, after review of her medical records and the relevant science, opined with reasonable medical certainty that there was no relationship between the medical problems experienced by Ms. Cornell and exposures to molds (i.e., no specific causation). The defendants’ expert also opined that a causal relationship between indoor residential mold and Ms. Cornell’s injuries was not generally accepted in the medical community (i.e., no general causation).

Plaintiff’s medical expert opined to the contrary, and pointed to numerous studies that supported an association between indoor residential mold and illness. But as the Court of Appeals explained, “studies that show an association between a damp and moldy indoor environment and the medical conditions that [plaintiff's medical expert] attributes to Cornell's exposure to mold (bronchial-asthma, rhino-sinusitis, hypersensitivity reactions and irritation reactions of the skin and mucous membranes) do not establish that the relevant scientific community generally accepts that molds cause these adverse health effects.” (The causation/association battle line was explained in detail in our January 16 entry.)

The Court of Appeals could have ended its decision there (since without proof of general causation, plaintiff must be turned away), but it went further: even assuming that the plaintiff in Cornell demonstrated general causation, she did not show the necessary specific causation. (For a theory of causation to survive under Frye, both prongs of causation – general and specific – must be proved.) The Court of Appeals decision alludes to the fact plaintiff failed to show specific causation because she did not set forth “exposure to a toxin, that the toxin is capable of causing the particular illness and that plaintiff was exposed to sufficient levels of the toxin to cause the illness (specific causation)." The Cornell plaintiff’s expert had tried to prove specific causation by differential diagnosis. The Court of Appeals dismissed that attempt: “Differential diagnosis, of course, 'assumes general causation has been proven'". This last pronouncement is of incredible importance to the defense of toxic tort claims, as the number of clinicians who use differential diagnosis to support an opinion on causation is legion.

This Firm already has had opportunity to use the Cornell decision at the trial court level to our client’s advantage (see Benton v 80 Cranberry Street, in “Publications” above).  Absent a major change in the science of mold illness, there is every reason to believe the next few years will see many more summary judgment decisions in favor of land owners and against mold plaintiffs.

                                                        APX 8/6/14
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Adjacent Landowner Liability for City Sidewalk Defects, by Arthur Xanthos

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For nearly a decade, the New York City Administrative Code has imposed on landowners the responsibility of maintaining the sidewalks adjacent to the landowner's premises.  Thus, a passerby who slips and falls on the sidewalk outside your building can look to the building owner as a possible defendant.


By definition, condominium boards are not landowners.  So if a passerby slips and falls on a sidewalk adjacent to a condominium building, who is the adjacent landowner for purposes of liability?


This Firm has seen plaintiff counsel sue the condominium itself, which we believe eventually results in a dismissal because the condominium is not a landowner and the NYC Administrative Code provision is interpreted strictly.  So that leaves one other possibility on whom to impose liability for a sidewalk defect -- the owner of the particular condominium unit closest to the site of the trip and fall (occupied most likely by a ground floor commercial tenant of the unit owner).


In light of uncertain litigation with these quirky facts, ground floor condominium unit owners who rent out their unit should obligate the tenant to maintain and repair the sidewalk adjacent to the unit, and to defend and indemnify the unit owner (and the condominium board of managers) in the event of a lawsuit.  We note that while many form leases obligate tenant to keep the adjacent sidewalk clean, they leave unclear the responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and repair.


Of course, the condominium unit owner should also insist on proof that the tenant has adequate liability insurance and has named the unit owner (and, of course, the board of managers) as additional insureds on the insurance policy.
     

                                                                                                 -APX 1/19/14
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