Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Extrapolation of Defendants' Liabilities under CPLR Article 16 Where the Plaintiff Is Contributorily Negligent: An Update toward Resolving a Perceived Ambiguity of CPLR 1601

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Extrapolation of Defendants' Liabilities under CPLR Article 16 Where the Plaintiff Is Contributorily Negligent: An Update toward Resolving a Perceived Ambiguity of CPLR 1601

Article excerpt

Imagine the following scenario under New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("CPLR") Article 16: A plaintiff is attacked and stabbed by two patrons outside of a saloon and is caused to incur injuries. The plaintiff commences an action against the patrons and against the saloon, seeking damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of, inter alia, the saloon's negligence and violation of the Dram Shop Act. (1) At trial, a jury renders a verdict finding the saloon 50% at fault, the patrons 45% at fault, and the plaintiff 5% contributorily negligent. Under CPLR 1601, the saloon's liability would appear on the face of the statute to be capped at its 50% share of total liability assigned to all persons liable, insulating the defendant saloon from joint and several liability for any greater portion of damages. (2) Further imagine the plaintiff arguing that his 5% contributory negligence should not be included within the computations of CPLR 1601, so that upon extrapolating the defendants' collective liability from 95% to 100%, the saloon's proportionate share rises from 50% to 52.63%. Under these circumstances, the plaintiff argues, the defendant saloon does not qualify for the limitations on its liability under CPLR 1601, and the entire judgment could be enforced against the "deep pocket" saloon by virtue of joint and several liability. Should the saloon's liability be capped at its 50% equitable share of liability as assessed by the jury pursuant to the protections afforded by CPLR 1601, or alternatively, should the plaintiffs contributory negligence be deducted from the jury's total and render the saloon ineligible for the protective benefits of CPLR 1601 based upon its 52.63% share of extrapolated liability?

The foregoing set of facts requires no imagination. They arose in the case of Robinson v. June. (3) The conflicting arguments presented in Robinson on behalf of the plaintiff and the defendant saloon exposed, in a practical way that affected the interests of the parties, an arguable shortcoming of CPLR Article 16; namely whether, in performing the calculus of CPLR 1601, the percentage of contributory negligence assessed against the plaintiff is to be included within, or deducted from, the total assigned liability in cases such as Robinson, where the application of Article 16 limitations of liability hang in the balance. This question of CPLR 1601, as will be shown below, yields no easy answer.

Before addressing the analysis and determination of the court in Robinson, as well as subsequent discussions of the same or similar issues by other courts and by academia, a discussion is in order summarizing CPLR Article 16 and its culmination of an almost forty-year evolution of New York law regarding the state's allocation of fault and losses between parties.

I. THE BACKGROUND OF CPLR ARTICLE 16--THE DIVISION OF NEGLIGENCE AS BETWEEN PLAINTIFFS AND DEFENDANTS

The law in New York traditionally prohibited plaintiffs from recovering civil damages in instances where the plaintiffs were contributorily negligent to any degree. (4) The rule was based upon the legal theory that plaintiffs' negligence constituted an intervening cause breaking the connection between the defendants' negligence and the plaintiffs' injuries. (5) Thus, a plaintiff found contributorily negligent for an occurrence, for as little as 1% of the total culpability, was barred from receiving any monetary award. (6) Uncertainty over a plaintiffs potential contributory negligence was undoubtedly a factor leading to the settlement of cases prior to trial, as plaintiffs might otherwise risk receipt of any monetary compensation for claimed losses absent a solid case of liability in their favor. However onerous the contributory negligence bar may seem to New York plaintiffs and practitioners today, it remains the rule in four states and the District of Columbia, (7) and in a modified form in twelve states where recovery is barred if the plaintiffs contributory negligence is 50% or more, (8) and in another twenty-one states if the plaintiffs contributory negligence eclipses 50%. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.