New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

COLON v. NEW YORK STATE THRUWAY AUTHORITY, #2004-013-509, Claim No. 103357


Synopsis


Liability awarded to Claimants due to Defendant's failure to yield right-of-way.

Case Information

UID:
2004-013-509
Claimant(s):
STEVEN A. COLON
Claimant short name:
COLON
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
NEW YORK STATE THRUWAY AUTHORITY
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
103357
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
PHILIP J. PATTI
Claimant's attorney:
JOHN J. FLAHERTY, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: REYNOLDS E. HAHN, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
July 27, 2004
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)
2004-013-510


Decision

These two claims arise out of the same motor vehicle accident involving a vehicle driven by Claimant Steven A. Colon, in which Claimant Lynda L. Dayton and her son Clarence L. Gray, Jr. were passengers, and a vehicle owned by the Defendant New York State Thruway Authority[1]
and being operated by one of its employees. The parties stipulated and, by order dated June 27, 2001, I directed that Claim Nos. 103357 and 104142 be consolidated under Claim No. 103357 and that it be joined for trial with Claim No. 103741. The trial of these claims was bifurcated, and this decision addresses issues of liability only.[2] The Defendant rested at the close of Claimants' proof, not offering any evidence on its direct case. Claimants' motion for a directed verdict, upon which I reserved decision, ensued.
The accident occurred on May 21, 1999 at the intersection of Eagle Harbor Road and Albion Eagle Harbor Road in the Town of Albion at approximately 1:55 p.m. The accident report discloses that the roadways were dry and the weather was clear (Exhibit 5). Both Eagle Harbor Road and Albion Eagle Harbor Road are two-lane roadways, with Eagle Harbor Road (EHR) running in a north-south direction and Albion Eagle Harbor Road (AEHR) in an east-west direction. These two roadways intersect just south of a lift bridge on EHR which spans the Erie Canal. A stop sign located on the northeast corner of AEHR controls traffic heading west and attempting to enter onto EHR from AEHR. The bridge deck is approximately 123 feet long and 18 feet 8 inches wide, and is raised and lowered from an elevated building located just south of the bridge and on the west side of EHR directly across from the point where AEHR intersects EHR (
see Exhibit 11). A red light is activated on each end of the bridge to warn approaching traffic when the bridge is being raised. At the time of the accident, it was showing green in both directions.
Laura Brace was an employee of Defendant New York State Thruway Authority on the day of the accident and was assigned to raise and lower bridges numbered 199, 200 and 203 to accommodate boat traffic on the canal. She testified that she was en route from bridge number 200, where she had just raised that structure for canal traffic, to bridge number 203 (the lift bridge on EHR) for the same purpose. She testified that she proceeded westerly along AEHR to reach the building housing the mechanics for raising bridge number 203. She was operating a State owned 1990 Chevrolet pickup truck which was painted yellow. As she reached the point of the intersection of AEHR and EHR she stopped for the stop sign, looked to the south and north along EHR and observed a vehicle traveling south along EHR that she estimated to be roughly 500 feet away.

She also stated that because of the bridge's superstructure she was unable to clearly observe any traffic on the bridge or just to the immediate north of the bridge (
see Exhibits 7, 8, 10 and 13). The tower which contains the controls to raise and lower the bridge is located on the westerly side of EHR, directly across from the stop sign (see Exhibit 14).
Ms. Brace's intent was to cross over EHR, enter the westerly shoulder of EHR and turn south and then back the pickup truck into a parking area located to the west of the tower (
see Exhibit 11). In order to do this, she stated that after stopping at the stop sign and looking north on EHR, she then moved again to try to see if there was any traffic on the bridge. She indicated that this was necessary because once you ease out from AEHR you are "committed" to make the crossing, according to her testimony (Transcript, p. 50).[3] Then, as she accelerated and turned into the southbound lane of EHR, she caught a glimpse of something "out of the corner of my eye" (Transcript, p. 37) followed by an immediate impact.
At approximately the same time that Brace was stopping at the stop sign at the intersection of EHR and AEHR, Claimant Colon, operating a 1995 two-door Mercury Cougar owned by Lynda Dayton, had reached the "T" intersection of EHR and Knowlesville Eagle Harbor Road (KEHR). KEHR is also a two-lane highway which runs in a west to east direction at this location and intersects with EHR north of the bridge. Claimant Colon stopped at the stop sign located on the southeast corner of KEHR, a stop sign set back somewhat from the corner. He looked to the north where he observed a car traveling south on EHR and which he estimated to be at least five to six car lengths to his north. While his view to the north was generally unobstructed, the same cannot be said of his view to the south, which was obstructed by a building located at the corner. In order to get a clear view to the south, Claimant Colon would have had to pull his car up beyond the stop sign to the physical corner of KEHR and EHR. Even at that point, his ability to clearly see traffic to the south was hampered by the bridge's superstructure (
see Exhibits 15 and 9).
Claimant Colon was driving Claimant Gray to the Albion Medical Clinic, and Claimant Dayton, Gray's mother and the owner of the vehicle, was accompanying them. After stopping at the stop sign at KEHR, Claimant Colon proceeded to turn right and entered EHR, crossed the bridge and saw the Defendant's truck turn in front of him. Even though he was traveling within, and actually below, the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour, he testified that he was unable to avoid striking the right side of the Defendant's pickup.

As noted above, at the conclusion of the trial, Claimants moved for a directed verdict and I reserved on their joint motion to allow the Defendant an opportunity to set forth in concise detail its defenses.

Preliminarily, it is clear from the record that the only proper defendant for the claims in this accident is the Defendant New York State Thruway Authority, which was the owner of the pickup truck and for whom Ms. Brace worked. The Court of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine all claims against the New York State Thruway Authority for alleged torts (
Easley v New York State Thruway Auth., 1 NY2d 374, 376), and the Thruway Authority is separately suable in this Court and can be held accountable for its own torts (see, e.g., MacFarland-Breakell Bldg. Corp. v New York State Thruway Auth., 104 AD2d 139, 141). Moreover, the New York State Thruway Authority has had statutory responsibility for operating the canal system since April 1, 1992 (see Canal Law §5, added L 1992, ch 776, §4); and the New York State Canal Corporation is a subsidiary of the Thruway Authority which was created in 1992 to operate and maintain the canal system (see Public Authorities Law §382, added L 1992, ch 766, §31), and is subject to the jurisdiction of this Court (see Public Authorities Law §361-b and §381[2]). Since the Canal Corporation is now a part of the New York State Thruway Authority, and since no facts or proof implicating the State of New York have been presented, there is no basis for it to continue as a separately named party, and the State's motion to dismiss the claim as to the Defendant State of New York and to strike it as a named defendant is granted and so reflected in the caption.
To the extent that the Defendant has implied that Vehicle and Traffic Law §§1103 and 1104 relating to public officers and authorized emergency vehicles might be applicable, no such defense was pleaded nor was any proof whatsoever offered that might demonstrate the applicability of these statutes to the Thruway Authority's vehicle. This theory, to the extent it has been implied, is rejected.

The Defendant sought to portray Claimant Colon as speeding at the time of impact. It relies on two factors: first, that the infant Claimant Gray had a 2:00 p.m. appointment at the Albion Medical Clinic, and since the accident happened at approximately 1:55 p.m. and the clinic was another 15 minutes south from the accident scene, that they were late for the appointment and hence were speeding; and second, relying upon the first factor as its premise, Claimant Colon's testimony that at the time of impact he was traveling "around 30" (in a 35 miles per hour zone) which speed, the Defendant points out, was reached within 123 feet from a dead stop. However, the actual distance Claimant Colon traveled is somewhat greater than 123 feet, since the intersection of KEHR and EHR north of the bridge is an unmeasured, albeit short, additional distance (Exhibit 9), and the point of impact is an unmeasured, albeit short, additional distance south of the bridge, both distances to be added to the 123-foot length of the deck of bridge number 203. Moreover, Colon's estimate of his speed, around 30 miles per hour (Transcript, p.145), was clearly his own best estimate. Indeed, Claimant Dayton's testimony is that her vehicle, being operated by Claimant Colon, was only traveling at about 28 miles per hour (Transcript, p.186).

All parties agree that §1142 and §1172 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law appear to control the actions of the parties in this case. What complicates the applicability of these statutes in this instance is the fact that Defendant's driver testified that she had in fact stopped her vehicle at the stop sign on AEHR and again just beyond the traffic control device before attempting to cross EHR and pull onto its westerly shoulder. It is evident from the photographic evidence that from her vantage point at the stop sign she was able to see traffic approaching from the north along EHR as it was approaching the bridge (
see Exhibits 4 and 7). Her ability to see traffic on the bridge or turning onto the bridge from KEHR was obstructed by its superstructure.
This required the driver to pull beyond the stop sign in an attempt to ascertain traffic on or entering the bridge. However, Defendant's driver was very familiar with the intersection and knew the configuration of the "T" intersections to the northwest and southeast of this bridge. She conceded that when she stopped at the sign on AEHR it was possible that she would not be able to see a vehicle entering EHR from KEHR (Transcript, pp. 48-49).

At her deposition (portions of which were used at trial) she was asked various questions concerning whether she ever had an unobstructed view of any traffic on the EHR bridge prior to the accident, to which she answered that she had not. At trial she reaffirmed that when she pulled into the intersection she never saw Claimant's vehicle prior to impact (Transcript, pp. 52-56).

While the Defendant posited several theories relating to Claimant Colon's putative negligence, the proof before me does not support any of its contentions. Insinuations that Claimant Colon was preoccupied with being somewhat late for a doctor's appointment for Claimant Clarence Gray and thus inattentive and negligent in his driving are vague and unsupportable, and seem belied by the undisputed fact that Claimant Colon was traveling at a speed below the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

Given that the only testimony with respect to the speed of the vehicle were estimates by Claimants Colon and Dayton, given that there was no proof that Claimant Colon was driving erratically or at an excessive speed for the conditions extant, and given that the speed of the Dayton vehicle was, as best one can determine from the record, at least five miles per hour below the legal limit, I cannot and do not find any culpable conduct by Claimant Colon relating to the speed at which he was driving. The insinuation that Claimant Colon was accelerating at a dangerous pace, and hence somehow culpable thereby, must be rejected as speculative and without any foundation on the record.

Moreover, the Defendant failed to demonstrate Claimant Colon was under a duty to slow down as he drove over the bridge (Vehicle and Traffic Law §1180[a]). Claimant Colon's actions were not governed by a stop sign or any other traffic control device, other than the speed limit, he had the right-of-way and there is no evidence that he had an opportunity to avoid the accident (
Zadins v Pommerville, 300 AD2d 1111).
In the final analysis, I find that the sole cause of this accident was the negligent operation of the Thruway Authority's vehicle by its employee, Laura Brace. By her own testimony, she admitted that she attempted to cross Eagle Harbor Road without having a clear view of the southbound traffic that was on the bridge, and I find that she failed to yield the right-of-way to Claimants (
see, Hillman v Eick, 2004 NY AD LEXIS 8059 [4th Dept.]; Kelsey v Degan, 266 AD2d 843). Coupled with the mandates of §1142 and §1172 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law prescribing the rules of the road as they pertain to the duties of a driver at or approaching a stop sign, the proof, in my opinion, clearly establishes Brace's negligence in the operation of the Thruway Authority's vehicle, which was the sole proximate cause of this accident (see Vehicle and Traffic Law §388[1]).
Claimants' motion for a directed verdict on the issue of liability made at the close of proof and upon which I reserved decision, is hereby granted in accord with my decision herein. All other motions made at trial upon which I reserved decision are now denied unless otherwise disposed of within this decision.

The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter interlocutory judgments on the issue of liability. These claims will be scheduled for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.

LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENTS BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.



July 27, 2004
Rochester, New York

HON. PHILIP J. PATTI
Judge of the Court of Claims




  1. [1]For syntactical ease, use of the term Defendant shall mean the New York State Thruway Authority only (see p. 5, infra).
  2. [2]I have previously held, in earlier motion practice herein, that the issue of whether Claimant Colon sustained serious personal injury would properly be heard during the damages phase, if any, of a bifurcated trial.
  3. [3]I conclude that by "committed" the witness means accelerating quickly in order to get to the opposite side of EHR.