New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SCOTT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-009-015, Claim No. 96091


This claim for wrongful death alleged improper maintenance of a culvert and ditch area adjoining State highway Rt. 104B. The Court dismissed the claim, finding that the State did not have actual or constructive notice of a potentially dangerous condition, nor did it have notice of the actual condition of the highway on the day of the accident.

Case Information

NANCY SCOTT, as Administratrix of the Estate of James T. Scott, Deceased, andNANCY SCOTT, as Parent and Natural Guardian of James T. Scott, Deceased
Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Nicholas V. Midey, Jr.
Claimant's attorney:
BY: Douglas H. Young, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Roger B. Williams, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney Generalof Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 21, 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This claim seeks to recover damages for the unfortunate death of James T. Scott as a result of a two-vehicle accident which occurred on January 23, 1997, on State Route 104B in the Town of Mexico, New York. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.

The uncontroverted facts adduced at trial established that James Scott was 17 years of age at the time of this accident. He had attended classes at Oswego County BOCES on the morning of January 23, 1997, and then proceeded to Sandy Creek High School for a lunch period and one class. He was operating his mother's automobile and was returning home when the accident occurred.

was proceeding eastbound on Route 104B at approximately 4:45 p.m. and was at a point approximately one-half mile east of the intersection with County Route 43 when the accident occurred.
Mr. Scott's vehicle was the third car in a line of traffic traveling eastbound. John Cooper, III, testified at trial that he was operating the second vehicle in that line of traffic, immediately ahead of claimant. The lead vehicle suddenly splashed water and ice onto Mr. Cooper's vehicle, and he immediately pulled over to the right-hand shoulder of the road to clean his windshield. From this position, he was able to view the collision which then occurred. He observed claimant lose control of his vehicle in the ice and water on the roadway, and the vehicle fish-tailed and then skidded across the highway into the westbound lane of traffic. Claimant spun sideways and collided broadside with a westbound vehicle operated by Brian Clifford. Tragically, claimant was pronounced dead at the scene of this accident.

State Route 104B, near the location where the accident occurred, is a two-lane highway which generally proceeds in an east-west direction. At the site of the accident, the road was fairly straight, with a slight uphill grade in the easterly direction. On the date of the accident, the temperature had risen above the freezing point and there was considerable sunshine throughout the day. As a result, a substantial thawing had occurred. As a result of the thaw, snow which had accumulated in a field on the south side of the highway began to melt and run from the field into a drainage ditch adjacent to Route 104B, which was designed to accommodate water running off the field. Water which accumulated in the ditch would then run under a 15" culvert installed under a driveway leading to a residence owned by a family named Cline, and continued in the ditch along the roadway through another culvert 12" in diameter, under a driveway which provided access to a field approximately 200 feet west of the Cline property. Eventually, the water was directed into a deep swale from which water could run through a culvert which crossed the highway, leading to its northerly side.

On the day of the accident, water began to accumulate in the eastbound lane of Route 104B, near the 12" culvert located west of the Cline property. As the temperature dropped during the late afternoon, the water started to turn to slush and ice, and it was this mixture that existed on the highway when the accident occurred.

It is the position of claimant that the State, through the Department of Transportation, failed to adequately maintain the culvert and ditch area which adjoined the highway, and as a result the ditch and culvert could not adequately contain the runoff water resulting from the thaw. Claimant maintains that the water then spilled onto the roadway, creating a hazardous condition, and this condition was the competent factor causing claimant to lose control of his vehicle.

It is well settled that the State has a duty to maintain its roads in a reasonably safe condition (
Friedman v State of New York, 67 NY2d 271). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its roadways and the mere happening of an accident on a State roadway does not render the State liable (see, Tomassi v Town of Union, 46 NY2d 91; Brooks v New York State Thruway Auth., 73 AD2d 767, affd 51 NY2d 892). Claimant has the burden of establishing that the State was negligent and that such negligence was a proximate cause of the accident (see, Bernstein v City of New York, 69 NY2d 1020, 1021-1022; Marchetto v State of New York, 179 AD2d 947; Demesmin v Town of Islip, 147 AD2d 519). The existence of a hazardous condition on a highway, of which the State had actual or constructive notice, as well as a duty to repair, can constitute actionable negligence upon the State's failure to properly discharge its duty (see, Nelson v State of New York, 105 Misc 2d 107; Retzel v State of New York, 94 Misc 2d 562).
While a great deal of testimony was elicited at trial and numerous witnesses were presented, claimant must first satisfy the threshold issue of notice. In order for claimant to be successful, it must be established that the State had adequate notice of the dangerous condition before it can be held liable for acts of omission or commission (see,
Rinaldi v State of New York, 49 AD2d 361). Furthermore, negligence cannot be inferred from the mere happening of an accident (see, Koester v State of New York, 90 AD2d 357; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719).
Mary E. Woolson, who lives approximately one to one and one-half miles from State Route 104B, testified on behalf of claimant. She testified that she drives over this highway on a regular basis. It is her testimony that she called the Mexico office of the New York State Department of Transportation in the spring of 1996 to complain about water running across the road. It was her further testimony that employees of the Department went to the area and cleared the roadway. Representatives of the Department testified, however, that there were no records of any complaints regarding flooding of the roadway in this vicinity, nor was there any record of remedial efforts having been undertaken by any Department of Transportation work crews. Other than this one witness testifying that she had made a complaint and that the State had attempted to correct the problem, the record is void of any other evidence of notice having been received by the defendant State of New York.

Among the witnesses presented by the State were several employees of the New York State Department of Transportation, including Richard T. McLaughlin, Highway Maintenance Supervisor; Myron A. Shirley, Resident Engineer; Raymond T. McDougall, Assistant Regional Traffic Engineer; Brian A. Elphick, Highway Maintenance Supervisor; and Ronald J. Hadcock, Highway Maintenance Supervisor. These witnesses uniformly and consistently testified that they had never seen water flowing over the road, or accumulating on the road, in the immediate vicinity of the accident, nor did they have knowledge of any reports, either written or verbal, of such an occurrence having been made to the Department of Transportation.

Some of these employees were charged with the responsibilities of traveling and inspecting the State roads in this area on a regular basis. In particular, Ronald Hadcock, one of the maintenance supervisors who testified, stated that he has resided on Route 104B, near the site of the accident, for several years and during these years, he testified that he has never observed any water on the roadway in this area, nor has he ever received any complaints, or even heard any remarks from his neighbors, about such a condition.

In addition to these Department of Transportation employees, New York State Trooper Timothy G. Siddall admitted in the course of cross-examination that he had traveled the area of the accident on numerous prior occasions and never observed water accumulated on the road at this location, nor had he ever heard of water accumulating on the road from other New York State Troopers. Finally, claimant's expert witness, Alan T. Gonseth, P.E, testifying on the subject of highway design and maintenance, admitted that he personally inspected the records of the New York State Department of Transportation Oswego County Residency, and did not find any reports on file of any complaints about water accumulating on the road in the subject area.

In order for the Court to find that claimant's burden of establishing notice to the State has been satisfied, the Court would have to disregard and discredit the testimony of all of the above named witnesses, and rely exclusively on the testimony of Mary E. Woolson. The Court is well aware that it must consider the quality and content of each and every witness, and cannot simply count the number of witnesses in making its determination. In this claim, however, the Court must consider the fact that all of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the State uniformly indicated that they had not received any type of notice in connection with water accumulation at the subject area. As such, the Court finds that claimant has failed to meet the threshold burden of establishing either actual or constructive notice to the State of a potentially dangerous, recurring condition.

Testimony also established that the accumulation of water at the accident site occurred shortly before the time of the accident. Water started to accumulate on the low spot in the road approximately an hour and a half, at most, prior to the accident, as the temperature dropped in the late afternoon. The Court finds this time frame insufficient to impute constructive notice of a hazardous condition to the State. Furthermore, representatives of the Department of Transportation in Oswego County did not receive actual notification of the condition until after the accident occurred. Accordingly, the Court finds that the State did not have notice, either actual or constructive, of the hazardous condition which existed that day.

Having made the determination that the State had no notice of a possible defective or dangerous condition, nor notice of the actual condition on the day of the accident, this claim must fail. All other issues raised at trial are thereby rendered moot.

Accordingly, after careful consideration of all evidence before the Court, the Court finds that the defendant State of New York is not liable in connection with this claim and the claim is hereby DISMISSED.


December 21, 2000
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]For purposes of this decision, "claimant" refers to decedent, James T. Scott, unless otherwise indicated.