Plaintiff was a passenger in a tractor trailer owned and operated by Haven Transportation, Inc. ("Haven") and Benedetto, respectively, that was involved in an accident with another tractor trailer. Plaintiff initially sued Haven, Benedetto, and the owner and operator of the "tractor" portion of the other tractor trailer. Several years later, Plaintiff attempted to amend the complaint to add Maersk, the owner of the "trailer" portion of the other tractor trailer involved in the collision. However, the statute of limitations had run and therefore permission to join the third party defendant was denied. Subsequently, Benedetto and Haven commenced a third party contribution action against Maersk pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(1). The Supreme Court granted Maersk's motion for summary judgment dismissing the third party action, and the Appellate Division affirmed.
Whether primary Defendants may commence a contribution action against a third party Defendant under § 388 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law when the statute of limitations bars Plaintiff from suing that third party Defendant directly.
Yes. The legislature intended § 388 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law to facilitate equitable contribution from all responsible entities, even when direct liability is precluded, because those entities should share the financial burden of their role in the accident.
The Court of Appeals previously indicated that legislative intent must be considered when determining whether to allow a defendant to seek third party contribution. See Matter of Sutka v. Conners, 73 N.Y.2d 395, 403 (N.Y. 1989). Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(1) imputes the negligence of the user or operator of a motor vehicle to the owner. The legislative intent of this statute is to protect a potential plaintiff as an injured party by enabling access to a more realistic source of recovery. However, the statute is silent on the issue of equitable contribution among tortfeasors who are jointly liable.
C.P.L.R. § 1401 ensures that defendants have their own rights of apportionment based on their actual, respective degrees of fault. The legislative intent behind C.P.L.R. § 1401 is to allow contribution unless the legislative policy which led to the passage of the statute is clearly frustrated by allowing the contribution. See Zona v. Oatka Rest. & Lounge, 68 N.Y.2d 824, 825 (N.Y. 1986).
The Appellate Division had held that third party contribution should not be allowed if the contribution is not requested with the intent to provide a greater likelihood of recovery. See Rodriguez v. Yosi Trucking, 151 A.D.2d 556 (1989).
By dismissing the third-party defendant's (Maersk) motion for summary judgment, the Mowczan Court allowed the primary Defendants (Haven and Benedetto) to bring a third party contribution action against Maersk. The Court of Appeals held that an owner of a vehicle who is found "vicariously liable" under the permissive user provision of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388 (1) may be brought into the original suit despite the party's absence from the plaintiff's claim and regardless of the reason for this absence. The Court made a third party's entrance into a lawsuit contingent upon keeping intact the underlying purpose of the statute.
The Court of Appeal's ruling filled a temporal and substantive gap regarding third party practice. The Court examined the policy aims and legislative history behind each statute to determine the correct outcome. Since Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388 (1) is silent on the issue of equitable contribution among joint tortfeasors, the Court stated that the intent behind C.P.L.R. § 1401 should govern.
Following Mowczen, an owner of a vehicle who is liable under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388 need not be an original defendant in order to be brought into the lawsuit as a third party defendant. In the future, plaintiffs will have an increased chance for full recovery and the financial liability will be more equitably shared among those at fault.
In the context of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the court allowed primary defendants to bring a third party contribution action against Maersk. Yet, the court is unclear on the scope and limitations of this newly announced method of tort distribution. For instance, will primary defendants be able to use C.P.L.R. § 1401 in order to bring third party contribution actions in other statutory contexts?
In addition, the Court of Appeals reiterates that third party contribution actions by defendants are not permissible when the underlying equitable policy of the statute is "clearly frustrated." However, after this opinion it remains unclear under what circumstances courts should disallow third party contribution actions.
Other jurisdictions reflect the spirit of the Court's decision. California allows a defendant to file a cross-claim for equitable indemnity against a party even if the statute of limitations bars the plaintiff's claim against that party. See Valley Circle Estates v. VTN Consol., Inc., 659 P.2d 1160 (Cal. 1983). Similarly, Texas allows a cross-claim that would otherwise violate the statute of limitations if the claim asserts a set-off plea and if it arises from the same transaction. See Swaim v. International Harvester Co., 505 S.W.2d 634, 636 (Tex. Ct. App. 1974), reh'g denied (1974).
In Illinois, an action for contribution among joint tortfeasors need not be filed during the claimant's suit but may be asserted through a third-party motion or after final judgment. See 740 Ill. Comp. Stat. 100/5 (West 1998). Florida courts indicate that because the right of contribution arises only when liability is settled, the statute of limitations for a tort claim is not at issue. See Carpenter v. Bachman Enterprises, Inc., 657 S.2d 42, 44 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1995). Florida statutes state that a separate action to commence enforcement of contribution action must occur within one year of final judgment. See Fla. Stat. § 768.31(4)(c).