New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SNYDER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-016-094 , Claim No. 102844


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):

Claimant's attorney:
Siben & Siben, LLPBy: John L. Geis, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: John Shields, Esq., AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
November 21, 2003
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is the decision following the trial on liability of the claim of Thomas Snyder and Eileen Snyder, which arose when Mr. Snyder's truck was hit by a state police vehicle in an intersection. Since Mrs. Snyder's claim is derivative of her husband's and to simplify the references, "Snyder" and "claimant" will be used to mean Thomas Snyder.

On the morning of June 2, 2000, at about 7:15 or 7:30, Snyder and Scott Nill, residents of Suffolk County and partners in S & T Professional Painting, were in claimant's Chevy pickup truck on their way to a job. Snyder was driving with Nill as his passenger. The day was sunny and the roads were dry. The two were heading northbound on County Road 105 near Riverhead when Snyder stopped for a red light at the intersection with State Route 24, known locally as Flanders Road.

The north-south county road has two lanes of through traffic
. Snyder was the first car stopped in the left lane. Also waiting at the red light was Richard Bo, who at trial testified that he was alongside Snyder's pickup on the right, perhaps half a vehicle length behind it. When the traffic signal turned green, the two motorists moved forward into the intersection, intending to cross Route 24 and continue northward.
State Trooper Robert Summerlin[1]
had been traveling eastbound on Flanders Road heading toward the intersection in his marked police vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe SUV. Summerlin testified that he had been following a small white car, "pacing" it, measuring the car's speed against his own by trying to maintain the same distance from it. The posted speed limit on Flanders is 40 miles an hour and the officer testified that he paced the white car going 60 to 65 mph. Summerlin stated that in furtherance thereof, he drove through the intersection, running the light - - it was undisputed that the light was against him. His SUV smashed into Snyder's truck, which was pushed onto the hood of Bo's sedan. (See cl exhs 4 through 7 and def exh A).
Claimant never saw Summerlin's police vehicle:
Q. What was your first awareness that an accident took place?
A. When I felt - - well actually, I didn't feel, I heard metal crushing in and glass breaking.

Summerlin was based at the station on Flanders Road in Hampton Bays, which served as headquarters for the Division of State Police's jurisdiction over the eastern towns of Suffolk County. Some time after 7 a.m., the officer had issued a summons in North Hampton and was returning to the station to see if the
"desk men" there wanted breakfast. According to Summerlin, he had been patrolling with another officer until 5 a.m. and then continued alone. Officer Summerlin had been working a long shift known as the A-plus shift, which ran a normal tour from 11 in the evening until 7 a.m. plus an extra four hours to 11 a.m. On June 1st, he began that shift two hours early at 9 p.m., so that by the time of the accident, he had been on duty all night for over 10 hours.
A police vehicle that is involved in an accident while "engaged in . . . pursuing an actual or suspected violator of the law" will have the actions of the vehicle's driver tested under the standard of reckless disregard, rather than that of ordinary negligence.
Criscione v City of New York, 97 NY2d 152, 736 NYS2d 656 (2001); Vehicle and Traffic Law §§101, 114-b, and 1104. The principle clearly comprehends the tracking of a speeding, or potentially speeding, car by a police officer.
However, from the evidence, this trier of fact cannot conclude
that when Trooper Summerlin went through the red light at the intersection of Flanders Road and Route 105, he was engaged in the pursuit of a speeder. Summerlin's testimony contains inconsistencies and uncertainties, including:
Furthermore, moving beyond Summerlin's testimony on its own terms and evaluating such in light of the evidence overall, a number of things stand out that undermine Summerlin's testimony as to what transpired:

Moreover, once the officer got to the intersection, visibility from there would be limited by a sharp bend in Flanders Road, a quarter mile past the intersection. But as we have seen, Summerlin, at best, never got closer than three-tenths of a mile to the white car.
In sum, to this trier of fact, State Trooper Summerlin was not engaged in a pursuit that entitles the defendant to the reckless disregard standard.[2]
As to the ordinary standard of care, the actions of Summerlin were negligent; it was undisputed that he ran a red light. He testified that he did so, at least in part, based upon his vague sense of how certain sensors at the intersection functioned. The officer's deposition testimony provided that he looked left, or north upon entering the intersection. He did not say he failed to look to the right, although the following suggests why he thought looking in that direction would not be helpful, but also demonstrates a lack of due care: "[there are] several trees and shrubs there, you can't see anything going north until you're right at the intersection."
I conclude that claimant, for his part, was free of any negligence. He (and his partner Nill) both testified that he looked both ways before entering the intersection. Perhaps more probative was that Richard Bo in his car began to move through the intersection at about the time claimant did. I credit the testimony that the two cars had been stopped for some thirty seconds so that they had time to see what was developing. For that matter, neither claimant, Nill nor Bo could recall seeing a small white, speeding vehicle go through the intersection just before the light changed, although such would not necessarily have been taken note of. Summerlin was not required to engage his lights or siren, but not doing so made it that much harder for Snyder to have reacted to Summerlin's vehicle.
In view of the foregoing, I find the defendant to be fully liable for Thomas Snyder's accident of June 2, 2000. The parties will be contacted by the Court as to a damages trial.

November 21, 2003
New York, New York
Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] Mr. Summerlin retired from the Division of State Police on April 6, 2001.

[2] Even assuming that the speeding white car did exist, no case has been found in which the police pursuit was anything like Summerlin's "pursuit." See Criscione, supra; Szczerbiak v Pilat, 90 NY2d 553, 664 NYS2d 252 (1997); Saarinen v Kerr, 84 NY2d 494, 620 NYS2d 297 (1994); and three recent Court of Claims cases: Dale & Gere v State of New York, Ct Cl dated June 30, 2003 (claim no. 98032, unreported, Lebous, J., UID # 2003-019-006); Klein v State of New York, Ct Cl dated August 19, 2003 (claim no. 102851, unreported, Mignano, J., UID # 2003-029-308); and Parrinello v State of New York, Ct Cl dated September 18, 2003 (claim no. 100422, unreported, Mignano, J., UID # 2003-029-312). Decisions of the Court of Claims may be found at the Court's website: