How Article 16 of the CPLR affects joint and several liability

The general rule under CPLR §1601: In a personal injury action if the court finds two or more defendants responsible and one of those defendants is fifty percent or less responsible then that defendant will not be liable for more than the percentage at fault that he was found for the non-economic loss to the plaintiff. “non-economic loss” includes but is not limited to pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium. The actual language of CPLR §1601 states:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, when a verdict or decision in an action or claim for personal injury is determined in favor of a claimant in an action involving two or more tortfeasors jointly liable or in a claim against the state and the liability of a defendant is found to be fifty percent or less of the total liability assigned to all persons liable, the liability of such defendant to the claimant for non-economic loss shall not exceed that defendant’s equitable share determined in accordance with the relative culpability of each person causing or contributing to the total liability for non-economic loss”.

This general rule has many exceptions, which can be found in CPLR §1602. CPLR §1602 is principally a list of exceptions to CPLR 1601 that preserves joint and several liability in favor of the plaintiffs in certain situations. The statute also contains provisions that keeps preexisting laws in certain circumstances. CPLR §1602 is the product of a legislative compromise in an attempt to find the appropriate situations for a modified joint and several liability rule. Morales v. County of Nassau, 94 N.Y.2d 218, 224, 703 N.Y.S.2d 61, 64 (NY. Ct. App. 1999).

In Car Accidents- Car Crashes: You can be held 100 percent liable even if you are under 50 percent responsible – CPLR §1602 (6)

The most notable exception to CPLR §1601 is CPLR §1602 (6) which states: CPLR §1601 does “not apply to any person held liable by reason of his use, operation, or ownership of a motor vehicle or motorcycle, as those terms are defined respectively in sections three hundred eleven and one hundred twenty-five of the vehicle and traffic law”. In other words, if you get into a car accident- car crash you can be held fully responsible for non-economic damages if you are found liable at all.

The benefits of reduced-liability under CPLR §1601 are unavailable in the most common tort case of all: a car accident – car crash. However, there are exceptions to the exception and the individual situation must be analyzed in order to determine whether the exemption of CPLR §1602(6) is applicable. By definition, subdivision (6) makes Article 16 inapplicable to users, operators and owners of motor vehicles and motorcycles. However, the term motor vehicle is not as cut and dry as one may think and in order to get an accurate definition one must look at Section 125 and 311 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

§ 125. Motor vehicles

Every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power, except (a) electrically-driven mobility assistance devices operated or driven by a person with a disability, (a-1) electric personal assistive mobility devices operated outside a city with a population of one million or more, (b) vehicles which run only upon rails or tracks, (c) snowmobiles as defined in article forty-seven of this chapter, and (d) all-terrain vehicles as defined in article forty-eight-B of this chapter. For the purposes of title four of this chapter, the term motor vehicle shall exclude fire and police vehicles other than ambulances. For the purposes of titles four and five of this chapter the term motor vehicles shall exclude farm type tractors and all terrain type vehicles used exclusively for agricultural purposes, or for snow plowing, other than for hire, farm equipment, including self-propelled machines used exclusively in growing, harvesting or handling farm produce, and self-propelled caterpillar or crawler-type equipment while being operated on the contract site.

§ 311 Motor vehicles

– 2. The term “motor vehicle” shall be defined as in section one hundred twenty-five of this chapter, except that it shall also include trailers, semi-trailers and tractors other than tractors used exclusively for agricultural purposes, and shall exclude fire and police vehicles, farm equipment, including self-propelled machines used exclusively in growing, harvesting or handling farm produce, tractors used exclusively for agricultural purposes, or for snowplowing other than for hire, and self-propelled caterpillar or crawler-type equipment while being operated on the contract site.

As you can see, fire and police vehicles get the benefit of Article 16 because fire and police vehicles are not within the definition of motor vehicles in §§ 125 and 311. Thus, in a multi-vehicle accident involving a fire truck, both the firefighter who was driving the truck and his municipal employer would get the benefit of CPLR 1601 if the negligent firefighter was held liable for 50% or less. See, Towers v. Hoag, 40 A.D.3d 244, 245, 833 N.Y.S.2d 388, 388 (1st Dep’t 2007). Two other examples of exemptions to CPLR §1602 (6) are manufacturers of automobiles involved in accidents and municipalities that negligently maintain roadways. Both of these entities are eligible for the benefits of CPLR §1601. Massey v. City of New York, 155 Misc.2d 580, 589 N.Y.S.2d 145 (Sup.Ct. Kings Co. 1992).

These cases show that the clear intent of the legislation was to specifically benefit municipalities and hospitals. CPLR §1601 was not designed to benefit average automobile drivers. That is why it is so important to contact a lawyer if you are in a car accident and at all responsible, even if it is a very small percentage.