New York State’s highest Court held that New York State is not subject to liability apportionment when a plaintiff claims the State (as a defendant) and private party (co-defendant) liable for noneconomic losses in a personal injury action. A strong dissent was rendered criticizing the majority opinion as giving the State preferential status over the other tortfeasors despite no legislative support.
Plaintiff suffered injuries while traveling on a state highway when a large branch broke off a tree bordering the road, fell through Plaintiff’s Jeep, and struck her on the head. Plaintiff and her spouse, derivatively, brought this action alleging that Defendant, the alleged owner of the property on which the tree was located, was negligent in failing to inspect, trim, and remove the dead or
diseased tree. Plaintiff also sued the State, alleging negligence on the part of Department of Transportation employees for failing to properly maintain the trees or warn drivers of hazards along the state highway. Defendant moved for a jury charge directing the apportionment of liability for Plaintiff’s injuries between Defendant and the State. The trial court denied Defendant’s request for a jury instruction regarding apportionment. The Appellate Division modified by reversing the denial of Defendant’s motion for a jury charge on apportionment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the fact-finder may not apportion fault to the State when a plaintiff claims that both the State and a private party are liable for noneconomic losses in a personal injury action.
The majority’s interpretation of CPLR 1601 is a strained reading of the statutory language and contravenes the legislative goal of limiting the liability of any and all tortfeasors who are responsible for 50% or less of the total liability. The majority’s analysis gives the State a preferred status over other tortfeasors, despite no indication that the legislature intended such a result, and notwithstanding that the plain reading of the text indicates the legislature simply wanted to create parallel rights of apportionment for state tortfeasors and non-state tortfeasors. Furthermore, the majority’s holding creates anomalous situations that I do not believe were intended by the legislature: 1) a defendant in Supreme Court cannot shift liability to the non-party State, but a State defendant in the Court of Claims can shift liability to a private party; and 2) a plaintiff in the Court of Claims will face apportionment with the State pointing to an empty chair, but a plaintiff in the Supreme Court will not face apportionment where the empty chair is the State. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent, and would affirm the Appellate Division’s order.