New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

FIGUEROA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-009-61, Claim No. 104206, Motion No. M-66320


Synopsis


Case Information

UID:
2003-009-61
Claimant(s):
RICHARD FIGUEROA
Claimant short name:
FIGUEROA
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
104206
Motion number(s):
M-66320
Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant's attorney:
THE PROSKIN LAW FIRM, P.C.
BY: Sue H. R. Adler, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General
BY: Melvin & Melvin, PLLC
Michael R. Vaccaro, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 18, 2003
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Decision

Defendant has brought this motion seeking an order of summary judgment dismissing the claim.

The following papers were considered by the Court in connection with this motion:
Notice of Motion, Affirmation in Support, with Exhibits, including the Affidavit of George A. Turner (Exhibit A) and a Memorandum of Law (Exhibit B) 1,2,3,4


Affirmation in Opposition, Affidavit of Richard Figueroa 5,6

Memorandum of Law (In Opposition) 7


Affirmation in Reply, with Exhibits 8


Affidavit in Reply of George A. Turner 9


Sur-Reply Affirmation 10


Affirmation in Response to Sur-Reply, with Exhibits 11


Correspondence from Claimant's Attorney, dated October 16, 2003 12


Correspondence from Defendant's Attorney dated October 21, 2003 13

In his claim, claimant seeks damages for personal injuries allegedly suffered by him in a multiple vehicle accident which occurred on February 2, 2001. On that date, claimant, an inmate in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, was a passenger in a bus transporting claimant and other inmates between correctional facilities. In addition to the driver of this vehicle, one George A. Turner, there were a total of 16 inmates aboard the bus, together with one sergeant and two correction officers. The bus was proceeding northbound on Interstate Route 81 in Jefferson County, on its way to Watertown Correctional Facility, when the accident occurred. At the time of the accident, it was snowing heavily, and there was limited visibility on the highway. The roadway was snow covered and slippery.

Claimant alleges that the defendant was negligent in its operation of the bus which caused, or contributed to, the accident and claimant's resulting injuries.

Summary judgment is the procedural equivalent of a trial (Andre v Pomeroy, 35 NY2d 361) and should be granted only when it has been established that there is no triable issue (Moskowitz v Garlock, 23 AD2d 943). The role of the Court, therefore, on a motion for summary judgment is not to resolve material issues of fact, but instead is to determine whether any such issues exist (Sillman v Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 3 NY2d 395). If such material issues of fact exist, the motion for summary judgment must be denied (Rotuba Extruders v Ceppos, 46 NY2d 223). Additionally, the Court notes that summary judgment is seldom appropriate in a negligence action (see, Andre v Pomeroy, supra).

In its motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of this claim, defendant contends that at the time of this accident, the bus which was occupied by claimant had already stopped on the highway when it was thereafter struck from behind by another vehicle, and that there is no indication of any negligence in the operation of the bus by its driver.

In support of its motion, defendant has submitted the affidavit of George A. Turner, the operator of the bus involved in the accident. In his affidavit, Mr. Turner states that as he was driving north on Route 81, he observed a truck, which was proceeding ahead of him, brake by activating its brake lights. Mr. Turner stated that he then applied his brakes, the bus traveled approximately 20 to 50 feet, and then came to a complete stop. After the bus had come to a stop, Mr. Turner stated that the bus was struck from behind once, causing it to be pushed forward, and that it then came to rest without coming into contact with any other object.

In addition to this affidavit, and as additional support for its request for summary judgment, defendant has also submitted a newspaper account of the accident (see Exhibit L to Items 1-4) the police accident report (Exhibit H), a supplemental accident report (Exhibit J) and a Department of Correctional Services "Unusual Incident Report" (Exhibit K), all of which contain references that the bus was stopped on the roadway and that it was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Defendant therefore contends that the affidavit of Mr. Turner, together with these records, reports, and newspaper accounts, establish that the bus was properly and safely stopped before it was struck from behind, and that there is no proof suggesting that Mr. Turner was negligent in his operation of the vehicle.

In response, the affidavit of claimant has been submitted (see Item 6), in which he states that just prior to the accident, the bus driver and correction officers were "fooling around" and that the bus driver "was not paying attention to the road". He further claims that the bus had not come to a stop before it was struck from behind by another vehicle.

In response thereto, defendant has submitted a further affidavit from Mr. Turner (see Item 9) in which he emphatically denies any accusations of "fooling around" or inattentiveness.

Defendant apparently takes the position that this Court should credit the affidavits of Mr. Turner (supported by newspaper accounts, accident reports, and the internal investigation by the Department of Correctional Services), disregard claimant's affidavit, and dismiss this claim.

However, as previously stated, summary judgment should not be granted if triable issues of fact exist (Moskowitz v Garlock, supra). Claimant, in his affidavit, has certainly raised such material issues with regard to the actions of Mr. Turner in his operation of the bus, and whether such actions, if established, caused or contributed to the accident. Simply stated, it appears that an issue as to the credibility of witnesses exists, based upon the contradictory affidavits submitted herein. It is not a proper role for the Court to determine such issues as credibility in a motion for summary judgment. Such issues are best resolved after the Court has had an opportunity to assess the testimony of each witness, and their demeanor, at trial.

Furthermore, the additional documents submitted by defendant in support of its motion do not contain sufficient evidentiary proof in admissible form so as to enable the Court to award summary judgment at this stage of the proceedings. None of the submitted documents (i.e., police accident reports, the Unusual Incident Report, or the newspaper account) were prepared by individuals who witnessed the accident, and therefore they cannot form the basis for granting summary judgment. (See, Goldstein v Town of Liberty, 189 AD2d 989; Platovsky v City of New York, 275 AD2d 699).

Therefore, in viewing the facts in a light most favorable to claimant, the Court finds that triable issues of fact do exist which preclude summary judgment.

Additionally, the Court notes that in his response to this motion claimant has also asserted liability predicated not only on the alleged negligent operation of the bus by Mr. Turner, but also by the fact that claimant was not provided with a seat belt during his transport. Since the Court has already decided herein to deny defendant's motion for summary judgment, it would not typically address matters of an evidentiary nature. In this instance, however, counsel for the parties have fully and arduously addressed the question as to whether the lack of seat belt usage in this particular instance should be admissible at a future trial on liability. Due to its potential significance, this issue will therefore be addressed at this time.

Claimant has asserted liability against the State due to its failure to provide any seat belts or other safety restraints for claimant during his transport on this bus. Claimant contends that the failure to provide such restraints may be considered by the Court in its determination as to whether the State exercised reasonable care in the transport of this inmate. Claimant relies on Vehicle and Traffic Law § 383(1)(c), which requires motor vehicles to have one seat belt for each passenger seat position. Claimant argues that the failure to provide seat belts for the inmates on this bus, as required by § 383(1)(c), is probative evidence that the State was negligent in providing for the safety of these inmates during transport and that such evidence should be before the Court when it makes its determination on negligence, under common law principles.

Defendant, however, relies upon Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1229-c, which proscribes penalties for the failure to use seat belts when required by statute. Pursuant to § 1229-c(9), taxis, liveries, and buses (other than school buses) are exempt from the penalties provided in this section. It is defendant's position that since passengers in these types of vehicles are not required to use seat belts, these vehicles are therefore exempt from the requirement under § 383 that safety belts must be provided for each passenger seat position in these vehicles. In fact, it has been specifically stated that "[t]he safety seat belt law does not apply to taxis and buses other than school buses." (Carrieri, Practice Commentaries, McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 62A, V&T Law § 375, at 413).

Defendant further relies upon Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1229-c(8), which specifically provides that noncompliance with the provisions of § 1229-c is not admissible as evidence in any civil action with regard to the issue of liability.

It is well settled that a plaintiff's failure to use a seat belt is inadmissible in determining the issue of liability under common law negligence (Spier v Barker, 35 NY2d 444). Additionally, § 1229-c(8) clearly prohibits any evidence of noncompliance to be introduced on the issue of liability, where such use is required under § 1229-c (Hamilton v Purser, 162 AD2d 91; Baker v Keller, 241 AD2d 947).

Since the Legislature has specifically prohibited any evidence of seat belt non-use in any civil action with regard to the issue of liability in situations where seat belt use is required under § 1229-c, it is inconceivable that evidence of non-use could then be admissible to establish negligence in cases where, as here, seat belt usage is not mandated.

Accordingly, this Court finds that since seat belts are specifically not required on buses, evidence of such non-use cannot be admissible in any trial of this claim as to liability.

Therefore, it is

ORDERED, that Motion No. M-66320 seeking an order of summary judgment dismissing the claim, is hereby denied, as provided for herein.


December 18, 2003
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims