New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SUNDERLAND v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-009-102, Claim No. 92913


This claim sought damages for injuries suffered by claimant in a motor vehicle accident, on the basis that the State was negligent in failing to provide adequate traffic control devices at the intersection where the accident occurred. The Court found that the State had previously conducted a traffic study and therefore applied the qualified immunity set forth in Weiss v Fote, and dismissed the claim.

Case Information

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: Luciano J. Lama, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Louis J. Tripoli, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 27, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

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 collided.

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 lefthand turns.

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 Authority, 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 80 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, supra). 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 was obstructed.
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 public." (
Weiss v Fote, supra 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, supra at 285).
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
Weiss 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.


September 27, 2001
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims