New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CAMACHO v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-015-574, Claim No. 104217


Synopsis


Issues of credibility resolved in favor of defendant in motor vehicle accident. Actions of the claimant driver in change of lane were the sole proximate cause of accident.

Case Information

UID:
2003-015-574
Claimant(s):
LEE ANNE CAMACHO and RAFAEL CAMACHO
Claimant short name:
CAMACHO
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
104217
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney:
Capasso & MassaroniBy: John R. Seebold, Esquire
Defendant's attorney:
Honorable Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: Michael Friedman, EsquireAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Cook, Tucker, Netter & Cloonan, P.C.By: William N. Cloonan, Esquire
Signature date:
March 21, 2003
City:
Saratoga Springs
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
On March 6, 2000 a vehicle owned and operated by Rafael Camacho in which his wife Lee Anne Camacho was a passenger was struck in the rear by a vehicle owned by the State of New York and operated by an employee of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS).

An action was commenced by Lee Anne Camacho for injuries allegedly sustained as a result of the accident; her husband's claim is derivative only. In the claim Lee Anne Camacho alleged that she sustained "serious injuries as defined by the Insurance Law of the State of New York." A bifurcated trial ordered pursuant to 22 NYCRR 206.19 was held on January 16, 2003. This decision pertains solely to the issue of liability and, as discussed below, rests principally upon determinations of the various witnesses' credibility given their competing factual accounts of the accident.

Mrs. Camacho testified that on the morning of March 6, 2000 she and her husband were driving together from their home in Schenectady to their respective places of employment in the City of Albany. At the time Mrs. Camacho was employed by the New York State Department of Health (DOH) and her husband worked at Fleet Bank on Broadway. Mrs. Camacho was wearing her seatbelt and seated in the passenger side front seat of a 1990 Acura automobile operated by her husband Rafael Camacho. She related that at approximately 7:45 a.m. the Camacho vehicle exited I-787 North and turned left onto Broadway in the City of Albany. According to Mrs. Camacho the vehicle was in the left lane as it traveled approximately 1/4 mile on Broadway. She alleged that as her husband attempted to turn left onto Water Street at its intersection with Broadway their vehicle was struck from behind by a State owned vehicle being operated by a person later identified as Dorothy Melius, an employee of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). Claimant averred that as a result of the impact the vehicle in which she was riding fishtailed before being brought to a stop. She alleges that after being struck she observed the defendant's vehicle in the rearview mirror and noted that it was a blue DOCS van.

Claimant did not lose consciousness and after the accident she and her husband exited their vehicle, exchanged information with the van driver, returned to their vehicle and left the scene without contacting any police agency to investigate the accident.

On cross-examination claimant stated that she had been employed as an administrative assistant by the New York State Department of Health at the Corning Tower in Albany for approximately one month prior to the accident. She alleged that during that month her husband had driven her to work each day before proceeding to his place of employment at Fleet Bank located at 5 Broadway in the City of Albany. Claimant admitted to having a poor sense of direction and among other things could not recall which direction her husband would have traveled from the intersection of Broadway and Water Street if he intended to go to his place of employment before dropping her at the Empire State Plaza. She did not recall seeing the stationary traffic light located to the right of the subject intersection and depicted in defendant's Exhibits "D" and "E" but did recall having seen the overhead traffic lights at that location which are partially visible on Exhibit "D" and which she circled in red on that exhibit. Claimant testified that the traffic signals controlling the intersection were green at the time of the accident and that her husband had not brought his vehicle to a stop at any time after exiting I-787 and before impact.

The witness was unaware of any other witnesses to the accident except the vehicle's rear seat passenger Donald Ferrara who regularly commuted to work with Rafael Camacho prior to the accident. She alleged that while she, her husband and Mr. Ferrara had been friends prior to the accident she and her husband had severed their friendship with Mr. Ferrara and have had no contact with him for at least a year prior to the date of trial.

Claimant alleged that her vehicle sustained damage to the driver's side rear bumper as demonstrated by claimants' Exhibit "1 ", although she acknowledged that the damage is not apparent on Exhibit "2".

On examination by defense counsel on the State's counterclaim against Rafael Camacho claimant testified that she did not recall the presence of a traffic light at the end of the exit ramp from I-787 but remembered that her husband's vehicle was always in the left-hand lane.

On re-direct examination the witness stated that she never saw the DOCS van either in front or to the right of the Camacho vehicle.

Rafael Camacho testified that on the morning of the accident the weather was clear and dry. He described the surface of the roadways relevant to the accident as dry and relatively flat with a slight uphill grade. He testified, as had his wife, that their respective work starting times were flexible, between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., and that they were neither late nor hurrying to work on the morning of the accident. The witness identified defendant's Exhibits "G" and "H" as accurately depicting the exit ramp from I-787 to Broadway as it appeared on the date of the accident except for the presence of snow visible in the photographs. He recalled the traffic signals and pavement markings depicted in these photographs and testified that the light was green as he approached and turned onto Broadway from the left lane of the I-787 ramp. He alleges that he stayed in the left lane as he traveled along Broadway and signaled his intention to turn left at the hanging traffic lights depicted in defendant's Exhibit "D". He recognized the pavement markings in Exhibit "D" which permit left turns from the left lane only while allowing through traffic use of either the right or left lanes. The witness could not recall whether the traffic signal at the intersection of Broadway and Water Street included a designated left turn arrow.

Mr. Camacho testified that he had just begun to turn into the intersection in the direction of Water Street when he was struck in the rear bumper on the driver's side by a blue DOCS van which caused his vehicle to fishtail and then spin. After the accident he approached the operator of the van and noticed that the van contained six to ten occupants who he alleges were getting out of the van. Although Mr. Camacho admitted to having a cellular phone with him at the time of the accident he claimed that he did not telephone the police because he saw inmates getting out of the van. He reported that his vehicle's rear bumper was replaced as a result of the accident at a cost of $1,100.00 to $1,200.00, but that he sustained no injuries. He was unsure whether his rear seat passenger, Donald Ferrara witnessed the accident. Copies of an accident claim form and a MV-104 prepared by the witness were received in evidence without objection.

On cross-examination the witness stated that Mrs. Camacho worked for the DOH for approximately one month prior to the accident date, but he could not recall where his wife worked prior to that. He also had difficulty recollecting personal information from the time of the accident including the year of his daughter's birth and whether or not she was in school or day care on the date of the accident. He testified that for two years prior to his wife's employment with DOH he traveled the same route to work at Fleet Bank as the one he took on the date of the accident except that he would bear right at the subject intersection. He could not recall when he left Fleet Bank but believed that he continued to be employed there for six months after the accident. He asserted that he and Donald Ferrara were no longer friends.

Rafael Camacho further testified that he believed the left traffic light depicted in defendant's Exhibit "H" controlling left turns from the I-787 exit ramp was green when he approached it and that he slowed his vehicle and turned onto Broadway. According to Mr. Camacho his vehicle was traveling 15 miles per hour as he approached the Broadway/Water Street intersection and had slowed to 5 mph when making the turn onto Water Street . He also alleged that he noticed the defendant's van in his rear view mirror after turning left onto Broadway but did not see the van again until after the accident.

Contrary to his earlier testimony the witness indicated that after making contact with the defendant's van his vehicle did not spin "a couple of times"[1]
. In fact, he could not recall if it completed a 360Ε rotation but thought it might have completed a half turn so that it was facing in the opposite direction from the intended route of travel as it came to rest. He marked the alleged location of his vehicle after the accident with a green circle on defendant's Exhibit "B." Mr. Camacho asserted that after exchanging information with defendant's driver he returned to his vehicle, took his wife to work and proceeded to his place of employment. The witness acknowledged that the diagram of the accident scene which he prepared as part of an insurance report (claimants' Exhibit "4") is inaccurate in that the center roadway included in the drawing but not labeled is, in fact, not a road. At the conclusion of Rafael Camacho's testimony claimants rested.
The defendant requested a missing witness inference due to claimants' failure to produce Donald Ferrara at trial despite having included his name on their list of intended witnesses. The Court denied the motion.

Defendant's first witness was Dorothy Melius. Officer Melius has been employed by DOCS as a correction officer for seventeen years, the last four years at the Hudson Correctional Facility. According to Officer Melius, as part of her duties as a correction officer she was assigned the task of transporting inmates to outside work assignments using a DOCS eight or fourteen passenger van.

The witness recalled that on March 6, 2000 she was driving a 15 [
sic] passenger van containing five inmates to the steam plant on Orange Street in the City of Albany. Her route to Albany included the New York State Thruway to Exit 23, then north on I-787 to the Broadway/Clinton Street exit ramp. She testified that the traffic lights depicted in defendant's Exhibit "G" were red as she approached the end of the exit ramp causing her to bring the vehicle to a stop. She alleges that she was alone in the left lane and turned left when the traffic signal permitted. She stated that she slowly approached the intersection of Broadway and Water Street depicted in defendant's Exhibit "D" because she noticed the traffic light controlling the intersection was "about to turn red" and stopped her vehicle in the left lane at the light. The witness testified that there were no cars in front of her and claimants' vehicle was behind her in the left lane at the Broadway/Water Street light. She alleged that while stopped at the red light claimants' vehicle exited the left lane of traffic and pulled alongside the van in the right lane. As shown in defendant's Exhibit "D" the right lane contains pavement markings designating that lane as one for through traffic only.
According to Officer Melius she had just begun to move the van forward after the Broadway/Water Street traffic signal turned green when claimants' vehicle turned left in front of defendant's van "catching" the bumper of the van on the front passenger side. The witness described the impact as minor.

After the accident the witness pulled the van into a nearby parking lot and approached the claimants' vehicle. She stated that Rafael Camacho claimed he did not have his driver's license with him and one of the claimants provided Melius with Lee Anne Camacho's license to note the couple's address. Officer Melius testified that although she did not initially believe either vehicle was damaged she reported the accident to Sergeant Riale at Hudson Correctional Facility and completed an accident report. Neither she nor any of her five passengers were injured as a result of the accident.

On cross-examination the witness reported that she had previously driven inmates from Hudson to Albany for work assignments at both the steam plant on Orange Street and at the Empire State Plaza. Although she testified on direct examination that she transported inmates twice per week in the year preceding the date of the accident, on cross-examination she indicated that she had transported inmates to the Orange Street steam plant three or four times prior to March 6, 2000 and that she took a different route when driving inmates to the Empire State Plaza.

She repeated her earlier testimony regarding her use of the left lane on the I-787 exit ramp and could recall no other vehicles on the ramp on March 6, 2000 despite the fact that it was a weekday morning. She also reiterated that she remained in the left lane after turning from the exit ramp onto Broadway and was situated in the left lane after coming to a stop at the traffic light at Broadway and Water Street. She alleged that at that traffic light her view was clear and unobstructed in her rearview mirror and in both of the vehicle's side mirrors.

She testified that she was stopped at this traffic light for a "few minutes" in contrast to her examination before trial (EBT) testimony in which she alleged stopping for three to four minutes. During that time she observed the claimants' vehicle behind her in the left lane. The claimants' vehicle then pulled out of the left lane and into the right lane alongside the van. Officer Melius alleges that when the traffic light turned green claimants' vehicle abruptly turned left in front of the van resulting in contact between the claimants' driver's side rear bumper and the van's passenger side front bumper. The witness acknowledged that the vehicle shown in claimants' Exhibits "1", "2", and "3" was the vehicle involved in the accident as she recognized the plate number but admitted she had previously testified that the vehicle was white and had no damage. At trial she described claimants' vehicle as being light colored rather than white. She further admitted that she had previously testified that the only damage to the defendant's van was white paint on the vehicle's bumper. She sought to explain earlier inconsistent testimony at her EBT regarding when she first saw the claimants' vehicle prior to the accident by alleging that she had misunderstood counsel's question at that examination. She testified in somewhat inconsistent fashion that her vehicle was not moving when claimants' vehicle struck the van. The witness further stated that claimant never signaled his intention to turn left by sounding his horn or operating his turn signal prior to the accident.

When examined in relation to the counterclaim the witness testified that in her rearview mirror she saw claimants' vehicle approach the van and stop less than five feet behind it. She further testified that at the time of the accident she had one inmate in the front passenger seat and two inmates in each of the two succeeding rows of seats.

On redirect examination Officer Melius estimated that it took five to ten minutes following impact for the parties to park and exit their vehicles, exchange information and leave the scene.

On recross examination the witness stated that she did not recall the question that led her at her EBT to testify that it took Rafael Camacho five minutes to stop his vehicle and that she thought he might leave the scene.

The State's second and final witness was Jamine Walthall, a former inmate at Hudson Correctional Facility. Mr. Walthall testified that he had been released on parole in July 2002 after serving nine years for manslaughter. On March 6, 2000 the witness was being transported by a DOCS van from Hudson Correctional Facility to the Sheridan Avenue steam plant in the City of Albany where he had worked Monday through Friday since July 1999. He could not recall the name of the correction officer operating the van on March 6, 2000 but recognized Officer Melius as the driver at trial. He described the route taken by the van that morning and testified that he believed the van contained himself and three other inmates.

Using defendant's Exhibit "H" as an aid the witness testified that the van was in the left lane of the I-787 exit ramp. The van turned left onto Broadway and proceeded to the next traffic light which was red. He stated that claimants' vehicle pulled up to the right of the van and that when the light turned green both vehicles started to move forward. According to the witness the claimants' Acura sped up, went straight and then cut in front of the defendant's van making contact with the van, which the witness described as "a slight bump". Mr. Walthall testified that he could clearly observe the events related in his testimony and that he observed claimants' vehicle initiate contact with the DOCS van stating that the Acura "cut the van off." He was not injured as a result of the accident.

On cross-examination the witness confirmed his earlier characterization of the impact between the vehicles as a slight bump and stated that the van had just started to move forward when it was struck by claimants' car. He testified that he was seated on the second bench seat behind the driver and that there was one inmate on the front bench and two inmates on the back bench that morning. He stated that the van driver was not using a cell phone or two-way radio at the time of the accident and that the rear left bumper of claimants' Acura impacted the right front bumper of the van.

Upon being questioned by counsel on the counterclaim Walthall indicated that he filed a report with the Hudson Correctional Facility and underwent a required medical examination. At the conclusion of the witness' testimony the defendant rested.

From the above recitation of the testimonial proof presented at trial it is clear that the Court is presented with two contrary versions of the events giving rise to the claim which are directly in conflict and may not reasonably be reconciled. Under such circumstances it is the Court's responsibility as the trier of fact to resolve issues of credibility in order that the matter may be decided (
Schieren v State of New York, 281 AD2d 828; Acovangelo v Brundage, 271 AD2d 885). Both claimants testified that they were initiating a left-hand turn onto Water Street under a green light when their vehicle was struck in the rear by the defendant's van. That account is contradicted by the testimony of Officer Melius and Jamine Walthall which, taken together, alleged that while stopped at a red light at the Broadway/Water Street intersection the claimants' vehicle moved from a position behind the defendant's van in the left lane to a position alongside the van in the right lane. Both witnesses testified that when the light turned green the claimants' vehicle abruptly turned in front of the defendant's van. Because this accident was not investigated, physical evidence which might otherwise provide insight into vehicle movement and position is largely unavailable. Nor was expert testimony presented by either party.
Through observation of the witnesses at trial the Court found most credible the testimony of Jamine Walthall (
Alber v State of New York, 252 AD2d 856, 857). Mr. Walthall was clear in his recollection of the events at issue and testified without equivocation that he observed the claimants' vehicle next to the van in the right-hand lane while both vehicles were stopped at a red light at the Broadway/Water Street intersection. When the light turned green he watched as the claimants' vehicle accelerated and cut sharply in front of the van operated by Officer Melius. Mr. Walthall is the only disinterested witness and his version of events conforms to that related in the testimony of Officer Melius.
Based upon the proof presented at trial, including the Court's assessment of the credibility of the various witnesses, the Court determines that the accident occurred as related by Officer Melius and Jamine Walthall. The credible evidence established that on March 6, 2000 the defendant's van was stopped at a red light in the left lane of traffic at the intersection of Broadway and Water Street. Claimants' vehicle pulled alongside the van in the right lane. Claimants' vehicle accelerated when the light turned green and suddenly turned to the left into the path of the van initiating contact between the driver's side rear of claimants' vehicle and the passenger side front of the DOCS van. There is no evidence that the defendant's employee should have anticipated the abrupt movement of the claimants' vehicle into the left lane of traffic and it was reasonable under the circumstances as found by the Court for the van operator to assume that the claimants' vehicle would continue in its own lane of traffic (
see, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1128; Lucksinger v M.T. Unloading Servs., 280 AD2d 741; Peralta v Moore, 272 AD2d 458; Peck v Dygon, 224 AD2d 744). Accordingly, claimants have failed to establish any negligent conduct on the part of the defendant's employee (Peck v Dygon, 224 AD2d 744, supra). Instead, the Court finds that the actions of Rafael Camacho were the sole proximate cause of the accident in which his wife was injured.
Even had the claimants met their burden of proof and established some culpable conduct on the part of the operator, the actions of Rafael Camacho in accelerating and then cutting in front of the van from a position alongside it immediately following activation of a green light controlling their respective traffic lanes were the sort of reckless and unforeseeable conduct which serves to break the causal connection between any such culpable conduct on the part of the defendant and the ensuing injuries (
see, Robinson v City of New York, 300 AD2d 384; Feeley v Citizens Telecom. Co. of N.Y., 298 AD2d 745; Grippo v Sinatra, 265 AD2d 301; Trosty v Mendon Leasing Corp., 233 AD2d 318; Nikolaus v State of New York, 129 AD2d 865).
Finally, the same circumstances would justify application of the emergency doctrine which "recognizes that when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, the actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context" (
Rivera v New York City Tr. Auth., 77 NY2d 322, 327; see also, Ryder v County of Fulton, 2003 WL 1089466 [N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept]; Varsi v Stoll, 161 AD2d 590; Mantuano v Mehale, 258 AD2d 566; cf., Cohen v Terranella, 112 AD2d 264). In this matter the claimants have failed to establish any actionable conduct on the part of Officer Melius by a preponderance of the credible evidence. As a result, the claim is dismissed (Goff v Goudreau, 222 AD2d 650).
The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing the claim, and dismissing as moot the State's counterclaim for indemnification and/or contribution from Rafael Camacho.


March 21, 2003
Saratoga Springs, New York

HON. FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]Quotations are from the Court's trial notes.