Understanding Factual Disputes In a Personal Injury Case

Many personal injury lawsuits are resolved at the summary judgment stage. This means there are no genuine factual disputes that require a jury’s resolution. New York courts use summary judgment to quickly dispense with cases where there is only one logical outcome under the law. But summary judgment is not appropriate in every case, such as this recent decision by the Appellate Division, Third Department.

Sepesi v. Watson

In this case, the plaintiff was riding in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that collided with a second vehicle owned and operated by two of the defendants. The plaintiff also sued the owner and driver of the ATV. Before Delaware County Supreme Court, all defendants moved for summary judgment. Supreme Court denied the motions, and the Third Department affirmed in a written opinion issued on January 15th of this year.

There were two basic issues to resolve on summary judgment. The first was the negligence, or lack thereof, on the part of the driver and owner of the second vehicle. The defendants presented an expert report that claimed the accident could not have occurred in the manner described by the plaintiff. The Third Department explained this expert opinion was not enough to resolve all factual disputes without the need for a trial. For one thing, the court said, the expert report itself was based on the defendants’ account of the accident, which of course is disputed by the plaintiff. Secondly, the expert did not examine the scene of the accident until five years after the fact, during which time the roadway changed. Finally, the expert relied on evidence that was never properly introduced before Supreme Court.

The other major issue for the courts to address at this stage was the culpability of the ATV’s owner. Under New York law, “ Negligence in the use of operation of an ATV shall be attributable to the owner.” This means the owner is responsible for any injury caused not only through his own operation of the ATV, but that of “any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied” of the owner.

In the context of this case, the Third Department said the burden of proof is on the owner to show he did not give permission to the driver (who happened to be his grandson) to use the vehicle on the day of the accident. The grandfather and grandson both testified before Supreme Court that the former imposed several restrictions on the latter’s use of the ATV, notably that the grandson was not to use the vehicle on any public roadway. However, these “disavowals are arguably suspect” and reflect the grandfather’s interest in avoiding liability, according to the Third Department, so they are insufficient to resolve the question of consent at summary judgment. Indeed, the appeals court noted the grandson’s testimony could allow a jury to determine the grandfather had bended his rules on the day of the accident, thereby constituting implied permission.

Always Be Prepared

Even if you believe the facts of your accident case are obvious and indisputable, that may not be enough to convince a judge to award you summary judgment. That is why you must always work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney who is prepared to go to trial. Contact our office today if you need to speak with an attorney right away about your personal injury case.