New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

LASHBROOKS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-013-521, Claim No. 95687


Synopsis


Defendant's bus rear-ended Claimant's pickup truck. Judge Patti found that Defendant's negligence was the cause of the accident.

Case Information

UID:
2000-013-521
Claimant(s):
ERVIN LASHBROOKS
Claimant short name:
LASHBROOKS
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
95687
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
PHILIP J. PATTI
Claimant's attorney:
SETRIGHT & LONGSTREET, LLPBY: JOHN C. SETRIGHT, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: TIMOTHY P. MULVEY, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 29, 2000
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

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 in Syracuse.

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 gear.

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 (
see, CPLR 3117[a][3][ii]).
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 vehicle.

Trooper Stevenson's Police Accident Report described the road as "straight and level", the road surface as "slush", and the weather as "cloudy" (
see, Exhibit 2, items 5, 6 and 7).[1] 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 also, 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, supra; Barba v Best Security Corp., supra).
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" (
see, Insurance Law §5104; CPLR 3016[g]; Ellis v Johnson Motor Lines, 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.


December 29, 2000
Rochester, New York

HON. PHILIP J. PATTI
Judge of the Court of Claims




  1. [1]I relied only upon the portions of the Police Accident Report that contained the Officer's first-hand observations (see, Johnson v Lutz, 253 NY 124; Stern v State of New York, 32 Misc 2d 357, affd 18 AD2d 1115).