“Innocent” Rear-Ended Plaintiff Entitled to Summary Judgment as to His Lack of Culpable Conduct, But Not With Respect to Defendants’ Negligence

In Oluwatayo v. Dulinayan, 2016 NY Slip Op 05455 (App. Div. 1st Dept. July 7, 2016), the court clarified the distinction – in the context of a rear-end car accident case – between (i) plaintiff’s freedom of culpability and (ii) defendants’ alleged negligence.

Here, plaintiff was entitled to summary judgment as to (i), but not as to (ii).

It appears, from the decision, that this multiple-vehicle, rear-end accident happened – as between the vehicles operated by Dulinayan (“D”), Gutierrez (“G”), and Plaintiff (“P”) – as follows:

D —> G —> P

The court explained:

The primary issue in this appeal is whether plaintiff, as an innocent driver, who was rear-ended by one or more cars, is by virtue of such status, per se, entitled to summary judgment on liability against any or all defendant drivers. Under the circumstances here, we find that plaintiff, an innocent driver, is not entitled to summary judgment on liability against any defendant driver because, as the party moving for summary judgment, plaintiff failed to meet his burden to eliminate triable issues of fact as to how the accident happened and which defendant driver was responsible for the rear end collision. Such an innocent plaintiff driver, however, is entitled to summary judgment on his lack of culpable conduct on the issue of liability pursuant to CPLR 3212(g).

Deposition testimony revealed two versions of events:

If Gutierrez’s testimony is credited, she was at a full stop when Dulinayan hit the back of her car, pushing her forward into the rear of plaintiff’s car. Under this version, Gutierrez provides a non-negligent explanation for rear-ending plaintiff’s car. If Dulinayan’s testimony is credited, Gutierrez hit the rear of plaintiff’s car before Dulinayan hit the rear of Gutierrez’s car. Under Dulinayan’s version, his conduct did not cause any collision between Gutierrez’s car and plaintiff’s car.

Based on this, the court concluded that “by submitting the deposition transcripts setting forth conflicting accounts of how the accident happened, plaintiff failed to meet his burden, as the party moving for summary judgment, of eliminating all triable issues of fact.”

It declined to hold, as plaintiff urged, “that since he was an innocent driver, who was rear-ended by another car and did not contribute to the happening of the accident, he is entitled to partial summary judgment against defendant drivers on the issue of liability” because this “argument conflates his claim of freedom from culpability with defendants’ alleged negligence.”

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