As a general rule, recovery for damages can be warranted when the negligent act is the proximate cause of the injury complained of. An exception to this principle is when there exists an intervening act which is extraordinary under the circumstances, not foreseeable in the normal course of events, or independent of or far removed from the respondent’s conduct thus considered as a superseding causation which can relieve the respondent from any liability.
The claimant appellant in this case has a long history of drug abuse and a lengthy criminal history, consisting primarily of drug-related offenses. On November 14, 1987, the appellant was arrested with her boyfriend on charges of assault, burglary, and robbery. While the claimant failed to attend the arraignment and trial, her boyfriend and codefendant alone was arraigned and sentenced with indeterminate years of imprisonment. Although the claimant did not participate in the trial and was not tried in absentia, a part clerk mistakenly recorded on the court file jacket that she had been found guilty of the identical charge and sentenced on the same date as her boyfriend. Thus, the purported 1989 assault conviction became part her criminal record.
Subsequently, the claimant was arrested, indicted and convicted in New York County for criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree. When asked if the allegations set forth in the predicate felony offender statement were true, Lapidus answered “yes,” and stated that she did not wish to challenge the constitutionality of her prior conviction. She was then adjudicated a second felony offender and was sentenced for imprisonment. The New York State Department of Correctional Services, relying upon the duplicate commitment order, calculated the total term of imprisonment that claimant would be required to serve and included the term of imprisonment purportedly imposed upon her for the 1989 assault conviction.
The claimant instituted a claim against the State alleging that these negligent acts caused her to be wrongfully adjudicated a second felony offender based upon a nonexistent assault conviction. The claimant further alleges that this wrongful adjudication resulted in her being sentenced as a second felony offender and that her sentence of imprisonment was improperly increased.
The Court of Claims dismissed the claim through a summary judgment, concluding that the claimant’s intervening act of failing to controvert the predicate felony offender statement filed against her was the superseding cause of her injuries.
The Supreme Court held that neither the claimant nor the State should be entitled to a summary judgment. The court stated that the claimant’s failure to controvert her status as a second felony offender was not an intervening, superseding act which broke the causal chain between the alleged negligence of court employees and her imprisonment for excessive period. She never would have been placed in the position of having to admit or deny that she was a predicate felon had not a court employee mistakenly recorded information on her court file.
Under the foreseeability principle in negligence law, an intervening act, by either the plaintiff or a third party, may, in some circumstances, sever the causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury, and constitute a superseding event which relieves the defendant of liability. The court found that factual questions are presented as to whether the claimant’s failure to controvert her status as a second felony offender was either so improbable and unforeseeable under the circumstances.
The court ordered for the case to be remanded to the Court of Claims to determine whether the claimant’s conduct should be evaluated in terms of comparative negligence, and if the court determines that her failure to investigate the status of her 1987 assault arrest, or question the validity of the predicate felony offender statement indicating that she had been convicted of this assault in January 1989, were substantial factors contributing to her injury, it should apportion negligence between both her and the State.
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