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How New York's Courts Assess Comparative Fault in a Negligence Case


Have you ever wondered if the fact that you bear at least some fault for your accident would serve as an automatic bar to winning a negligence case under New York law?

If so, you're not alone. (For more on this topic, see "How a Brooklyn Subway Accident Victim Won $7 Million - Even Though He Was Largely At Fault for His Own Accident").

And, the short answer is, no, that in and of itself will not spell the end of your negligence case as a matter of law - at least not in New York. Here's why:

New York is a comparative negligence state. This means that as a general rule, each party must bear its proportionate share of responsibility for an accident and its aftermath. As the courts have put it, the jury must be instructed to consider the plaintiff's comparative negligence "if there is a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences from which rational people can draw a conclusion of [the plaintiff's] negligence on the basis of the evidence presented at trial" (Bruni v. City of New York, 2 NY3d 319, 328 [2004])."

To that end, the courts have further stated that "[W]hether a plaintiff is comparatively negligent is almost invariably a question of fact and is for the jury to determine in all but the clearest cases" (Shea v. New York City Tr. Auth., 289 AD2d 558, 559 [2001]).

An important caveat is in order here. Just because it is theoretically possible that a jury might ultimately find that the defendant bears some share of responsibility for an accident doesn't inherently mean that the case should be brought. And the reason for this is grounded in common sense: if the defendant bears so little responsibility for the accident - even under the rosiest scenario that the plaintiff can imagine - chances are that a jury will exonerate the defendant from any liability.
Jonathan Cooper
Employment Litigation and School Negligence Lawyer