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General Municipal Law § 50–h…cont

Accordingly, the question before us is whether the motion court properly found that the serious injury threshold was not at issue because plaintiff’s personal injury did not arise out of an automobile accident within the meaning of the No–Fault Law. The seminal case on this issue is Walton v. LumbermensMut.Cas. Co. In Walton, the Court of Appeals made clear that, under the plain language of the statute, the essential question in determining whether a given injury is covered by the No–Fault Law is whether the plaintiff’s injury arises out of the use or operation of the automobile. The statute, however, did not define use or operation. In Walton, the issue arose within the context of No–Fault, basic economic benefits. Such benefits under No–Fault Insurance Law, the Court held, are premised on the happening of an automobile accident. That is, the vehicle must be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

The Walton Court explained that the proximate clause limitation was needed to circumscribe the benefits of the No–Fault Law in line with that law’s purposes. “Its purposes were to remove the vast majority of claims arising from vehicular accidents from the sphere of common-law tort litigation, and to establish a quick, sure and efficient system for obtaining compensation for economic loss suffered as a result of such accidents. The No–Fault Law assures that every auto accident victim would be compensated promptly without regard to fault, that the vast majority of auto accident negligence suits would be eliminated, freeing our courts for more important tasks, and that substantial premium savings would accrue to all New York motorists. Similarly, the No–Fault Law avoids litigation costs including the burden of attorneys’ fees that cut into the amounts ultimately received by accident victims.

The No–Fault Law works to ameliorate these problems, but not all injuries in and among motor vehicles were meant to benefit from the expediency provided by the No–Fault Law. Thus, the proximate cause limitation was necessary to avoid an overbroad application of the No–Fault Law. Any other rule would permit recovery for claims based on back strains, slip-and-fall injuries, and other similar injuries occurring while the vehicle is being used but which are wholly unrelated to its use.

In Walton, the Court found that the accident fell outside the ambit of the No–Fault Law. The facts in Walton are instructive. The plaintiff, a truck driver, was injured while delivering goods to a supermarket. He backed his employer’s tractor trailer up to the supermarket’s loading dock, got out of the truck, and opened the rear cargo door. The supermarket provided an apparatus called a “levelator” to facilitate delivery and, after the plaintiff raised the levelator to the same height as the truck bed and attached plates from the levelator to the truck, a ramp was created that enabled him to transfer goods from the truck to the levelator. After placing the goods onto the levelator, he could then lower the levelator to the height of the loading dock and transport the goods to the loading dock. While using the levelator and standing on it with a load of products, the levelator tipped over and threw him to the ground, causing him injuries. The Court found that the truck was not the proximate cause of Walton’s injuries; they arose out of the operation of the levelator.

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