The application of CPLR Article 16 can significantly limit a defendant’s exposure in NY litigation for non-economic loss to his or her equitable share of fault. The CPLR defines “non-economic loss” to include pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium or other similar categories of damages. Thus, Article 16 does not avail a defendant in a claim to recover lost earnings or unreimbursed medical expenses. However, for claims seeking recovery for pain and suffering, Section 1601 modifies the common law rule of joint and several liability by making a joint tortfeasor, whose share of fault is fifty percent or less, liable for plaintiff’s non-economic loss only to the extent of that tortfeasor’s equitable share. For a thoughtful analysis of whether to assert a contribution claim or to rely on the application of Article 16, I commend you to “Securing Full Protection of CPLR Article 16 for Defendants,” an article by John Lyddane and Ellen B. Fishman, partners at Martin Clearwater & Bell, which appeared in The New York Law Journal on September 14, 2010. Although the article focuses on the application of Article 16 in defending medical malpractice actions, the authors’ analysis is equally applicable to the defense of toxic tort litigation. In particular, Mr. Lyddane and Ms. Fishman provide a valuable discussion concerning how to keep Article 16 issues, (i.e., the non-defendants’ wrongs) before the finder of fact.
CPLR Article 16 contains many traps for the unwary practitioner. In particular, the exceptions to CPLR Article 16 must be considered in advising clients concerning the relief this section potentially affords them as defendants. For example, tortfeasor liability on property damage and wrongful death claims remains joint and several in respect to all categories of damages. There may be instances when a defendant should implead a co-tortfeasor as a third-party into the case rather than seek relief from Article 16. Another trap for the unwary litigant is in construction litigation. A tortfeasor shown to have violated what the law denominates a “non-delegable duty” gets no several-only status. Thus, in Labor Law Section 240 and 241 cases, a tortfeasor found liable under those sections may be found joint and severally liable for satisfying an adverse judgment if that liability is predicated upon a “non-delegable duty.”