Form Over Substance? Not in NY.

In Ruffin v. Lion Corp., New York’s Court of Appeals held that a defect in the service of a summons and complaint related to the residence of the process server is a mere technicality that does not render service ineffective and does not raise any jurisdiction questions — http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2010/2010_08767.htm

Plaintiff was injured in a December 2000 bus accident, and brought a suit in New York against the bus driver and bus company, headquartered in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff effectuated service through a process server who resided in Pennsylvania. The defendant bus company failed to respond to the summons and complaint, and plaintiff obtained a default judgment, and the trial court awarded $450,000 at an inquest. Two years later, the bus company moved to vacate the default on the grounds that the process server was not a New York resident, so plaintiff never obtained proper jurisdiction over the bus company. Plaintiff pointed out that CPLR 2001 allows courts to disregard technical defects in the filing process, but the defendant bus company argued that the process server’s residency was a jurisdiction issue that could not be overlooked pursuant to CPLR 2001.

The trial court denied the motion, the Appellate Division reversed and granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals reversed again, denying the motion. The court held that the process server’s residence was a technical defect that did not raise jurisdiction questions because the server’s residency had no effect on the likelihood that the defendant bus company would have received actual notice of the lawsuit. It further held that although CPLR 2001 explicitly excused mistakes in the “filing” process, there was nothing to suggest that the legislature intended to treat mistakes in “service” any differently, and the broad language of the statute allowed for such a result.

Special thanks to Alex Niederman for his contributions to this post. If you would like more information, please contact Bob Cosgrove at rcosgrove@wcmlaw.com.