In a split decision, a state appellate court has affirmed a damage award of more than $550,000 in a lawsuit filed against the state of New York.
In December 2021, plaintiff Michael Sabine was awarded damages of $550,000, plus interest, by Court of Claims Judge Diane L. Fitzpatrick.
In a 3-2 decision released Friday (March 17), the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department, affirmed lower court ruling.
Justices John M. Curran and E. Jeannette Ogden voted to affirm, but on a different legal basis.
Sabine filed the lawsuit seeking damages for injuries he allegedly suffered in a motor vehicle accident that happened when a truck owned by the state, and driven by a state worker, hit Sabine’s vehicle.
Sabine filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. Fitzpatrick initially denied that motion because she concluded that the state had raised a triable issue of fact whether Sabine was comparatively negligent.
Then Fitzpatrick granted Sabine’s request to renew the motion based on the Court of Appeals decision in Rodriguez v City of New York. Fitzpatrick granted the motion for partial summary judgment, but on the issue of negligence.
After a bench trial, Fitzpatrick ruled that Sabine had established that he sustained a serious injury within the meaning of Insurance Law and he was awarded $550,000 in damages.
Sabine appealed to the Fourth Department arguing that interest on the award should not be calculated based on the date of the decision establishing serious injury.
But the Fourth Department affirmed the Court of Claims ruling.
Sabine argued that the prejudgment interest should have run from the date of a “decision awarding common-law liability.”
The Fourth Department found that Sabine’s attorney failed to preserve his contention for appellate review, but addressed the contention under an exception to the rule.
Under state law, the Fourth Department wrote, prejudgment interest begins to run from the date on which a defendant’s obligation to pay plaintiff is established, and the only remaining question is the precise amount that is due.
Under the state’s no-fault insurance law, the right to plaintiffs in automobile accidents do not have an unfettered right to sue for injuries.
As a result, a defendant is not liable for noneconomic loss under Insurance Law unless the plaintiff proves that he or she sustained a serious injury.
The issue of a serious injury must be decided by the judge as a matter of law or by the judge or jury in a verdict before a defendant can be held liable for damages for noneconomic loss.
Sabine’s pretrial motions sought summary judgment on the issue liability without raising the issue of serious injury. Fitzpatrick properly concluded that “the relief sought was on the issue of negligence and granted summary judgment on that issue alone,” the Fourth Department wrote.
The defendant’s obligation to pay damages was not established until the issue of causation was resolved and Sabine proved that he sustained a serious injury.
“The court therefore properly calculated the award of prejudgment interest from the date of the decision determining … that claimant sustained a serious injury,” the majority wrote.
Curran and Ogden wrote that Sabine’s appeal should have simply been denied because the issue was not raised in the lower court and no exception should be applied. They did not argue in Sabine’s favor, but that Fitzpatrick’s decision should be affirmed on a different basis.
“The majority assumes that the issue is unpreserved but reaches the merits of claimant’s contention through application of an exception to the preservation rule,” the minority wrote.
“We respectfully disagree with the majority to the extent that it elects to address an unpreserved issue of statewide interest inasmuch as it does nothing more than adhere to this Court’s well-settled and decades-long precedent on that particular issue,” they wrote.
“In short, under the circumstances of this case, we disagree with the majority’s decision to invoke what should be a very rare exception to rules of preservation only just to double down on our long-standing precedent.”
“We accordingly concur in the result only,” they wrote.
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