A bus owned and driven by the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS)
rear-ended a Dodge pickup truck on November 25, 1996. Ervin Lashbrooks, the
owner and operator of the pickup, brought this timely-filed claim to recover
damages for injuries he allegedly sustained in the crash. The parties tried the
negligence phase of this case before me on June 20, 2000 at the Court of Claims
The accident took place on Route 11 in the Town of LeRay, Jefferson County, at
its intersection with North Martin Road, some time between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m.
Route 11 had a 55 mile per hour speed limit, but Claimant recalled that he was
moving at about 45 miles per hour. He was traveling in the southbound lane up a
slight incline. The roads were slushy and wet. He spotted a vehicle in front
of him in his lane that looked like it was stopped. He took his foot off the
gas pedal and possibly applied his brakes. As he got closer, he noticed that
the vehicle had its brake and right signal lights on. Claimant surmised that it
was slowing down to make a right turn onto North Martin Road. He let his Dodge
coast for about 5 or 6 telephone poles until it decelerated to less then 30
miles per hour and then downshifted the manual transmission from third to second
At the moment he downshifted, Defendant's bus crashed into the rear of his
pickup and propelled it forward into the rear of the vehicle in front of him.
Claimant said that he had not looked into his rearview mirror before deciding to
slow down, and was not aware, until he was rear-ended, that there was a bus
following his pickup.
The Dodge truck was at least twenty years old but was, in Claimant's words, in
"fairly good" condition. Claimant recalled having the truck, including its
brake lights, inspected just four days before the accident. He could not
remember the name of the shop that inspected the truck but he could recall where
the shop was located. He admitted that the brake lights on the Dodge were not
factory installed. Some time before the accident, the truck had been rewired
using a brake light kit purchased from a discount retailer.
Claimant also relied upon the deposition of two witnesses who were more than
100 miles away from the Court at the time of trial (
Trooper Jeffrey G. Stevenson testified in deposition (Exhibit 1) that he
arrived at the accident scene at about 10:50 a.m. The roads were slush covered
and slippery. Officer Stevenson said that the road in the vicinity of the
collision was straight and had no visual obstructions. It was either level or
on a slight grade. When he arrived at the scene, the bus was parked on the
northbound side of the roadway facing north. Claimant's vehicle was on the
shoulder of the southbound lane. The third vehicle, which had been driven by
Richard Lacey, was parked on the north shoulder of North Martin Road. Trooper
Stevenson surmised from the condition of the three vehicles, that there had been
collisions between: (1) the front of Defendant's bus and the back of Claimant's
truck; and, (2) the front of Claimant's truck and the rear of Mr. Lacey's
Trooper Stevenson's Police Accident Report described the road as "straight and
level", the road surface as "slush", and the weather as "cloudy" (
Exhibit 2, items 5, 6 and
He did not use the codes for
precipitation or fog in the report.
John White worked for DOCS at the time of the accident and was the driver of
the bus. He testified in deposition (Exhibit 3) that at the time of the
accident, about 10:00-10:30 a.m., he was transporting inmates on a straight
stretch of Route 11 between Gouverneur and Watertown. The roads were covered
with hard packed snow and ice. They were slippery, but not slushy. He was
driving at roughly 35-40 miles per hour with his headlights on. It was snowing
"pretty hard" and visibility was limited. He could not see any vehicles in
front of him. Suddenly, he spotted Claimant's truck about 50 to 100 yards in
front of him. The truck's brake lights were not on, but he realized that it was
not moving. White applied the bus's brakes, and quickly realized that the bus
was not going to stop in time. He wanted to veer to the left to avoid the
collision but there was traffic in the opposing lane. The right front corner
of the bus collided with Claimant's left rear fender.
Mr. White gave a written statement to his employer after the accident which
stated that the condition of the roads was "snowy and slushy," that his
approximate speed just before the accident was 50-55 miles per hour and that he
"did not see any brake or signal lights on the vehicle that was stopped in the
middle of the road." He acknowledged in deposition, however, that he was
preoccupied after the accident with the passengers on his bus. He did not have
an opportunity to examine the pickup to see whether there were lights mounted on
its rear fenders.
Following the accident, Mr. White pled guilty to driving with an obstructed
view in violation of
Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 375-30 (see,
Exhibit 4), an
offense, he said, that was different than the one with which he was charged at
the scene of the accident. That section penalizes a person from operating a
motor vehicle "with any object placed or hung in or upon the vehicle... in such
a manner as to obstruct or interfere with the view of the operator through the
windshield ...." As there is no evidence that an obstruction played a role in
this accident, I placed no reliance upon the conviction.
Correction Officer Blaine Webber was one of the officers who rode the DOCS bus.
He sat in the staff seating section behind the operator's seat. He said that
the roadway was fairly straight. It was flat or slightly downhill in the
southbound direction. It had snowed overnight and the roads were slushy and
wet. He said that the bus was moving at about the speed limit. He observed
Claimant's vehicle at the intersection of Route 11 and North Martin Road. It
was either stopped or moving slowly. Officer Webber never saw brake lights
activate on Claimant's vehicle. He testified that Mr. White "got on the brakes"
a second or two after Officer Webber first saw Claimant's pickup. But White was
not able to stop the bus.
"An operator of an automobile must at all times have his car under such control
and at such a reasonable distance away from the preceding car so that if the
preceding car does stop suddenly for whatever reason the operator of the car
behind can stop his car without ramming into the preceding one" (
Gass v Flynn
, 57 Misc 2d 893, 895; Barba v Best Security Corp
235 AD2d 381; Aromando v City of New York
, 202 AD2d 617; see
Vehicle and Traffic Law §1129). Here, the uncontradicted
evidence shows that Defendant's employee, Mr. White, did not have his vehicle
"under control" at the time that he rear-ended Claimant's vehicle. In the
absence of an adequate non-negligent explanation, his failure to maintain
control and to leave enough room to prevent a collision constitutes negligence
as a matter of law (Aromando v City of New York
Barba v Best Security Corp.
I find: (1) that the weather on the day of the accident was cloudy but
visibility was good; (2) that there was no precipitation; (3) that the surface
of the road was slushy and slippery; and (4) that Mr. White was traveling at
about 50 miles per hour -- in excess of a speed that was safe given the weather
conditions -- and was not paying sufficient attention to the road in front of
him. I conclude that this was the proximate cause of the accident. The fact
that White and Webber did not see brake lights does not persuade me that
Claimant had no brake lights on his truck or that his lights were not working
properly. Claimant's testimony satisfied me that he came to a stop by taking
his foot off of the gas pedal and allowing his vehicle to decelerate gradually.
Because he slowed gradually, I also conclude that Vehicle and Traffic Law
§1163, which requires a driver to signal before he "stops or suddenly
decreases the speed of the vehicle," is inapposite.
Partial judgment is therefore granted to Claimant on the issue of negligence.
A trial will be held to determine whether Claimant sustained a "serious injury"
or economic loss in excess of "basic economic loss" (
Insurance Law §5104; CPLR 3016[g]; Ellis v Johnson
, 198 AD2d 258, 259; Licari v Elliott
, 57 NY2d 230), and
to assess the scope and extent of any recoverable damages.
The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on the
issue of liability. This claim will be scheduled for trial on the issue of
damages as soon as practicable.
All motions not hereto ruled upon are hereby denied.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.