On August 18, 1995, claimant was injured in a motor vehicle accident which
occurred at the intersection of Port Watson Street (New York State Route 11/41)
and Pendleton Street in the City of Cortland. It is claimant's contention that
the State was negligent in failing to provide adequate traffic control devices
at this intersection.
The trial of this claim was ordered bifurcated. This decision therefore deals
solely with the issue of liability.
The facts of the incident are straightforward and uncontroverted. The accident
occurred at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Friday, August 18, 1995. Claimant was
driving her vehicle westbound on Port Watson Street (Route 11/41). As claimant
approached the intersection of Pendleton Street and Port Watson Street, she
observed the light change from red to green. Mary Gardner, the operator of
another vehicle, had been driving eastbound on Port Watson Street, and was
stopped at the red light at the intersection, preparing to make a left turn onto
Pendleton Street. When the light turned from red to green, Ms. Gardner suddenly
turned left into the path of claimant's oncoming vehicle and the vehicles
Testimony established that the weather conditions at this time were clear, and
the pavement was dry, and therefore weather was not a contributing factor to the
accident. The topography of the intersection is flat, and both Port Watson
Street and Pendleton Street are straight and level roadways in this area. There
was therefore sufficient sight distance, and there was no indication that there
were any obstructions to the vision of either driver immediately prior to, or at
the time of, the collision.
Both Port Watson Street and Pendleton Street are two lane streets, each marked
by double yellow center lines. The traffic control light at the intersection
was a two phase light, with pedestrian signals on call. The intersection was
marked with stop bars and pedestrian walkways.
At the trial, claimant testified that there were no lane markers on the highway
at this intersection to assist those who were traveling on the roadway. She
also testified that she had traveled over this intersection on numerous
occasions prior to the accident, and she had never considered this a dangerous
intersection. She indicated that the traffic control device which regulated
traffic at the intersection consisted of a standard traffic light with a
green/yellow/red light, but with no left turn arrows to assist traffic in making
Michael L. Preston, the Cortland Superintendent of Public Safety, testified on
behalf of the claimant. He testified that due to concerns of congested traffic
at this intersection, he had sent a letter, dated June 16, 1992, to Barry A.
Stevens, New York State Department of Transportation Regional Traffic Engineer,
requesting that a study be conducted addressing the traffic situation at this
intersection (see Claimant's Exhibit 1). Documentary evidence established that
in response to this request, a field study was in fact undertaken. As a result
of the traffic study, the Department of Transportation concluded that it was not
appropriate to add left turn phases to the traffic control device. This
decision was communicated to Mr. Preston by letter dated August 19, 1993, signed
by the said Barry A. Stevens (see Claimant's Exhibit 3).
Claimant also presented documentary evidence of prior accidents at this
intersection to establish that the State had actual notice that a dangerous
condition existed, and that the State failed to take action to remedy the
dangerous condition. Evidence adduced at trial established that 31 accidents
had occurred at this intersection between December 1, 1992 and August 18, 1995
(see Claimant's Exhibit 6). Sixteen of these accidents involved attempted left
hand turns, with six of those accidents occurring when an eastbound vehicle on
Port Watson Street attempted to turn northbound onto Pendleton Street.
Claimant's documentary evidence indicated that the number of accidents at this
intersection during this time period was over four times the statewide average
for accidents occurring at four way intersections controlled by traffic control
signals. (See Claimant's Exhibit 6).
In addition, claimant contends that the study conducted by the State, in
response to the request of Mr. Preston in June, 1992, was flawed, and that the
State therefore lacked a rational basis when it decided not to install left
turn phases to the traffic control device.
In particular, it is claimant's position that the conclusion reached by the
State was based upon an incorrect assumption that both Port Watson Street and
Pendleton Street were four lane highways, allowing for two lanes of traffic in
all directions. Both streets, however, are in fact designated as two-lane
highways. By utilizing this incorrect assumption, claimant contends that the
study required a much higher traffic volume threshold to justify the
installation of left turn phases at this intersection.
Furthermore, claimant contends that the State had a continuing duty to monitor
and review its decision, made in 1993, in light of the continuing history of
accidents occurring at the intersection.
Kenneth W. Passero, a professional engineer, offered expert testimony on behalf
of defendant. He testified that he had reviewed the study prepared by the State
in response to the inquiry from Mr. Preston, and also reviewed the engineering
report prepared by Passero Associates, P.C. (Claimant's Exhibit 6), and
concluded that a left turn phase was not warranted, based upon available
information. It was his opinion that the sole cause of the accident was Mrs.
Gardner's failure to yield the right-of-way.
It is well established that the State has a nondelegable duty to adequately
design, construct, and maintain its roadways in a reasonably safe condition
Friedman v State of New York
, 67 NY2d 271; Weiss v Fote
, 7 NY2d
579). The State however, is not an insurer of the safety of its roadways, and
the mere happening of an accident does not automatically render the State liable
(Tomassi v Town of Union
, 46 NY2d 91; Brooks v New York State Thruway
, 73 Ad2d 767, affd
51 NY2d 892). It is claimant's burden
to establish that the defendant was negligent, and that such negligence was a
proximate cause of the accident (Bernstein v City of New York
, 69 NY2d
1020; Marchetto v State of New York
, 179 AD2d 947, lv denied
NY2d 751; Demesmin v Town of Islip
, 147 AD2d 519).
It is also well settled that in claims involving issues of traffic design
engineering, the State is accorded a qualified immunity from liability arising
out of a highway planning decision, unless the study was plainly inadequate or
there was no reasonable basis for its plan (
Weiss v Fote
). In this case, there is no question that
the State did undertake a traffic safety investigation upon, the request of the
public safety officer for the City of Cortland, based upon concerns of traffic
congestion at this intersection during late afternoon hours. Although claimant
attempted to establish that the study was flawed, since it was based on an
assumption of two lanes of traffic in each direction, evidence also established
that the lane width on Port Watson Street was sufficient to allow room for two
vehicles in the vicinity of this intersection (see Claimant's Exhibit 6, p.3).
Traffic was observed using two lanes at or near the intersection, especially
with vehicles using the right lane to pass vehicles in the left lane which were
waiting to make a left turn. Based partly on these observations and traffic
counts, defendant's expert concluded that no left turn phase was warranted for
eastbound traffic on Port Watson Street.
Furthermore, even though claimant
established that this intersection had been the site of several accidents in the
years preceding this accident, relatively few of those accidents were of the
same type as occurred here (eastbound traffic making a left hand turn) and some
of those accidents were attributable to an obstructed view. Also, as previously
noted, this accident occurred in late evening on a clear night and on dry
pavement, with no indication that traffic was heavy or that either driver's view
In cases such as this, "something more than a mere choice between conflicting
opinions of experts is required before the State ... may be charged with a
failure to discharge its duty to plan highways for the safety of the traveling
Weiss v Fote
at 588). "Strong policy considerations
underpin the qualified immunity doctrine set forth in Weiss
" and this
directive "should not be lightly discounted" in situations where the State has
conducted a study by qualified employees (Friedman v State of New York
Accordingly, this Court finds that there was insufficient evidence to establish
that the study conducted by the State in response to the request made in June,
1992 was plainly inadequate or without a reasonable basis. The qualified
immunity provided by
is therefore applicable to the facts of this claim. The Court
concludes that claimant has failed to establish by a preponderance of the
evidence that there was any liability on the part of the State for the accident
which occurred on August 18, 1995.
Therefore, Claim No. 92913 is hereby DISMISSED.
All motions not heretofore ruled upon are denied.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.