In this first article of a two part car accident legal series, New York trial attorney Christopher T McGrath educates on the topic of court rulings in regards to jury verdicts holding a party negligent, but not liable for the causation of the auto accident.
By Christopher T McGrath, Esq.
The auto case goes to trial. The evidence is presented. The jury retires to deliberate. The jury comes back with a verdict. The verdict is that Driver 1 (maybe the plaintiff, maybe the defendant) was negligent … but that such negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the accident.
Can such a verdict stand? The answer is sometimes Yes and sometimes No.
There have been many cases in which a jury could reasonably conclude that a driver (sometimes plaintiff, sometimes defendant) was negligent but that the party’s conduct was not a proximate cause of the subject event.
However, there have also been many cases in which, in the context of the facts, it was just not reasonable to posit that the defendant (or the plaintiff) was negligent but that such negligence was not a proximate cause of the subject event. Such ruling is especially common where the jury found a driver (sometimes plaintiff, sometimes defendant) drove negligently at the very time of the collision, but that the driver’s negligence was not even a 20% or 10% cause of the collision.
Because this subject is of particular interest to New York attorneys with experience in handling cases arising from car accidents, my next article will further explore two areas in which courts have repeatedly rejected “Yes but No” verdicts.
 Nath v. Brown, 48 A.D.3d 1166, 1167, 851 N.Y.S.2d 762, 764 (4th Dep’t 2008) (where jury found that driver who came into contact was negligent but that there was “a valid line of reasoning and permissible [not explained] inferences that could lead rational persons to the conclusion reached by the jury based upon the evidence presented at trial”); Rivera v. MTA Long Island Bus, supra, 45 A.D.3d 557, 558, 845 N.Y.S.2d 394, 395 (2nd Dep’t 2007) (“the jury reasonably concluded that the defendant bus driver was negligent in the operation of the bus, but that such negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident” [no facts advanced in support of conclusion]); Ellis v. Borzilleri, 41 A.D.3d 1170, 1170-1171, 839 N.Y.S.2d 366, 368 (4th Dep’t 2007) (“Contrary to the contentions of plaintiffs and Borzilleri, the verdict finding that Hazard was negligent but that his negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident is not inconsistent … Here, the jury was entitled to credit the testimony of an accident reconstruction expert that Borzilleri’s vehicle struck plaintiff’s vehicle before Borzilleri’s vehicle was struck by Hazard’s vehicle, and to discredit the testimony of Borzilleri that she had stopped her vehicle before it was struck by Hazard’s vehicle”); Hollamon v. Vinson, supra, 38 A.D.3d 1159, 1160, 831 N.Y.S.2d 781, 782 (4th Dep’t 2007) (“the jury could have reasonably found from the evidence that, although Vinson was negligent in following too closely behind the vehicle operated by Dandridge, plaintiff’s conduct in stopping suddenly without signaling was the sole proximate cause of the collision”); McCulley v. Sandwick, 43 A.D.3d 624, 625-626, 841 N.Y.S.2d 392, 393 (3rd Dep’t 2007), app. dsmd., 9 N.Y.3d 976, 848 N.Y.S.2d 14 (2007) (where “responding police officer testified that plaintiff indicated at the scene that upon entering the intersection, she mistakenly turned right, corrected her turn while still in the intersection and turned the car to the left, at which point she was broadsided by defendant,” “We are unpersuaded by plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s negligent operation of his vehicle was so inextricably interwoven with the proximate cause of the collision as to render the jury verdict illogical and against the weight of the evidence”); Abre v. Sherman, supra, 36 A.D.3d 725, 726, 830 N.Y.S.2d 207, 208 (2nd Dep’t 2007) (“it was reasonable for the jury to find that the defendant was negligent in the operation of his vehicle … [but] was also reasonable for the jury to find that the defendant’s negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident given the speed with which the accident occurred”); Kim v. New York City Transit Authority, supra, 29 A.D.3d 984, 985, 817 N.Y.S.2d 306, 307 (2nd Dep’t 2006) (where the decedent-pedestrian was first knocked down by the bus and then was run over as the bus a jury could fairly conclude “that the plaintiff and To were both negligent, but only To’s negligence was a substantial cause of the accident”); Muff v. Lallave Transportation, Inc., 3 A.D.3d 693, 694-695, 771 N.Y.S.2d 235, 237 (3rd Dep’t 2004) (where defendant entered highway “at only 30 to 35 miles per hour” even though “traffic was moving at 75 miles per hour,” a jury could find that plaintiff’s conduct was not a proximate cause of the accident “[e]ven if plaintiff were traveling above the speed limit”); El-Shafie v. Verma, 2 A.D.3d 394, 767 N.Y.S.2d 850, 850-851 (2nd Dep’t 2003) (“The jury verdict finding that the defendant driver was negligent but that his negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident was not against the weight of the evidence … the issues were not so inextricably interwoven such that the jury’s finding was against the weight of the evidence” [no facts to explain conclusion]); Inserro v. Rochester Drug Cooperative, Inc., 258 A.D.2d 923, 924, 685 N.Y.S.2d 554, 555 (4th Dep’t 1999) (“The jury could have reasonably found consistent with the jury charge that, although Cowens was negligent in double-parking in the lane of traffic, his negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident”).
 Ahr v. Karolewski, 32 A.D.3d 805, 806, 821 N.Y.S.2d 236, 237 (2nd Dep’t 2006) (where “the trial court gave instructions regarding three possible theories under which [defendant] might be found negligent – that he failed to stop at the stop sign, as required by Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1172(a), that he failed to yield the right-of-way to the plaintiff’s closely-approaching vehicle, as required by Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1142(a), and/or that he failed to keep a proper lookout and to see through the proper use of his senses what was there to be seen” and where the jury found that defendant “was negligent in the operation of his vehicle, but that his negligence was not a substantial cause of the accident,” “the verdict could not have been reached upon any fair interpretation of the evidence, since Karolewski’s negligence necessarily contributed to the happening of the accident”); Szymanski v. Holenstein, 15 A.D.3d 941, 941, 790 N.Y.S.2d 346, 347 (4th Dep’t 2005) (where, at a toll booth, “defendant motioned to plaintiff’s decedent [a toll collector] to cross the lane,” where defendant “did not observe that plaintiff’s decedent had dropped some toll tickets and was crouched in front of the cab of defendant’s truck in order to pick them up,” and where the jury “rendered a verdict finding that Michael P. Holenstein (defendant) was negligent, but that his negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the injuries and death of plaintiff’s decedent,” “[w]e conclude under the facts of this case that the jury’s ‘finding of negligence cannot be reconciled with the jury’s finding of no proximate cause’”); Garrett v. Manaser, supra, 8 A.D.3d 616, 617, 779 N.Y.S.2d 565, 565 (2nd Dep’t 2004) (where “the defendant was negligent in entering the intersection without a clear view of the traffic on Avenue X and in failing to yield the right of way after a stop sign, there was no valid line of reasoning or permissible inferences that could have led a rational jury to conclude that the defendant’s violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §§ 1142(a) or 1172(a) was not a substantial factor in causing the accident”); Misa v. Filancia, 2 A.D.3d 810, 810, 769 N.Y.S.2d 404, 405 (2nd Dep’t 2003) (in action arising from a two-vehicle collision, the issues of negligence and proximate cause were so inextricably interwoven that it was logically impossible for the jury to find that both defendants were negligent without also finding that the negligence of at least one of them was a proximate cause of the accident”); Powell v. Tuyn, 306 A.D.2d 335, 335-336, 760 N.Y.S.2d 665, 665 (2nd Dep’t 2003) (where “the plaintiff’s decedent was struck and killed by an automobile driven by the defendant … [while] the decedent, a pedestrian, was crossing a three-lane roadway and was within the designated crosswalk” and where “the jury found that the defendant was negligent, but that her negligence was not the proximate cause of the accident,” “the jury verdict finding that the defendant’s negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident did not rest upon a fair interpretation of the credible evidence”); Johnson v. Schrader, 299 A.D.2d 815, 815-816, 750 N.Y.S.2d 244, 245 (4th Dep’t 2002) (where driver “emerged from whiteout conditions, rear-ending a tractor trailer,” and where jury found “that Opie was negligent but that his negligence was not a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries,” “the jury’s verdict with respect to Opie is contrary to the weight of the evidence”); Young v. Gould, 298 A.D.2d 287, 287, 748 N.Y.S.2d 743, 743-744 (1st Dep’t 2002) (where defendant collided with a deer and defendant argued “that the accident was unavoidable because the deep leapt out suddenly, leaving defendant with no opportunity to respond,” it may have been permissible to return a defendant’s verdict but it was illogical to find that defendant was negligent and that his negligence was not a proximate cause of the collision; “in finding defendant negligent, the jury had to find that the situation facing him was not sudden or should have been foreseen or was created or contributed to by its own negligence”); DiCesare v. Glasgow, 295 A.D.2d 1007, 1007-1008, 743 N.Y.S.2d 646, 647-648 (4th Dep’t 2002) (where defendant rear-ended plaintiff; defendant “testified that she was traveling very slowly, between 2 and 10 miles per hour, when she saw plaintiff’s vehicle” but that the collision was unavoidable in the conditions of the snowstorm, and where “the jury found that defendant was negligent but that her negligence was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries,” “the issues of negligence and proximate cause [were] so ‘inextricably interwoven’ [that] it [was] impossible to find negligence without proximate cause”); Morgan-Caban v. Pacini, 295 A.D.2d 931, 931, 743 N.Y.S.2d 639, 640 (4th Dep’t 2002) (after plaintiff’s vehicle “came to rest, sideways, in the passing lane,” “[d]efendant was unable to stop his vehicle, and his vehicle collided with the driver’s side of plaintiff’s vehicle”; we “agree with the [trial] court that the issues of negligence and proximate cause are so ‘inextricably interwoven as to make it logically impossible to find negligence without also finding proximate cause’”); Petrone v. Mazzone, 284 A.D.2d 634, 635, 725 N.Y.S.2d 752, 752-753 (3rd Dep’t 2001) (“[b]ecause we conclude that the jury’s determination that defendant was negligent but that his negligence was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries cannot be reconciled with the evidence presented at trial, we are constrained to reverse the judgment and order appealed from, and remit the matter for a new trial”).