New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

GAZZA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2004-033-528, Claim No. 102190


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:
Rebore, Thorpe & Pisarello, P.C.By: William J. Pisarello, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, New York State Attorney GeneralBy: John M. Shields, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 28, 2004

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is a timely filed claim based on negligence for alleged injuries suffered by Joseph Gazza (hereinafter "claimant"). On May 18 - 20, 2004, a bifurcated trial was held to determine liability.

On April 6, 1998, claimant was driving to his office at approximately 3:30 p.m. when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident at the intersection of Del Drive and NYS Route 110, in the Town of Babylon, New York[1]
At this intersection controlled by a traffic light, Route 110 is a busy north/south roadway. There are three northbound and three southbound lanes. In addition, there are two left turn lanes for each direction as well as one right hand turn lane (Exhibit 2A). Del Drive has two lanes in each direction. Claimant has worked in the area of this intersection for approximately 25 to 30 years as a contractor and his office is on Route 110 a few hundred feet south of the intersection.

He was traveling on Del Drive in a westerly direction and thus had to make a left turn onto Route 110 to proceed to his office. As he approached the intersection, the light was red so he stopped. When it turned green, he "took off" (Tr. 65, 5/18)[2]
, but could not remember if the green light that he saw was an arrow or a solid light (Tr. 66, 5/18). He also stated that he saw northbound vehicles on Route 110 at a complete stop (Tr. 66, 5/18). During cross-examination, claimant could not remember if he was in the right lane or left lane prior to entering the intersection. Claimant was confronted with prior testimony from a deposition in which he testified that he had been in the right lane prior to making the left turn. Claimant did not appear to recall the previous testimony, but states that he must have given the answer (Tr. 76, 5/18). He does not recall the collision.
The other vehicle involved in the accident was a Suffolk County Police cruiser driven by Police Officer Thomas Russo. Russo indicated that on that day he was working an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. tour of duty. While on patrol at approximately 3:30 p.m., he was headed northbound on Route 110 stopped at a red light at the intersection of Allen Boulevard and Route 110 one block south of the accident location. Russo proceeded northbound when the light turned green and could see the light was red for northbound traffic at the intersection of Del Drive with Route 110. The officer was in the left lane and no one was ahead of him as he drove toward the next intersection. Traffic was stopped in the east two lanes.

At some point before the officer had to stop, the traffic light turned green for northbound traffic on Route 110, as well as a green arrow for northbound traffic turning left/westbound onto Del Drive. Russo began to accelerate and was traveling approximately 40 to 45 m.p.h. as he entered the intersection. The officer states that he was in the left lane for northbound traffic with no vehicles in front of him in the same lane. However, according to the officer, the two lanes east of his had vehicles stopped in them. Russo testified that claimant's vehicle was directly in front of him when he first saw it (Tr. 10, 5/20).

Suffolk County Detective Sergeant Terrence Fanning also testified on claimant's behalf. Fanning indicated that he responded to the accident location to conduct an investigation. At the intersection, Fanning observed that the left turn signal to turn west on Del Drive for northbound traffic on Route 110 was turned approximately 90°. Fanning explained that made the signal appear as if it were a left turn arrow for vehicles on Del Drive to turn south on Route 110 (Tr. 32, 5/18). The witness identified the condition in Exhibits 2A - F.

Claimant's last witness was James Hahn, an expert on traffic light design and maintenance. Hahn described the light fixture as it was attached in the intersection and how it remained steady. The witness, using Exhibit 2F, described it as follows:
If we look at 2F in the very top left of the photograph, we see a wire which is called a span wire and on that is a saddle that attaches the next device below which is . . . called a swivel balancer and then there's a pipe that runs down to the signal head. Actually, there's something behind that which we'll look at in another photograph. Other than you see here the wiring that goes into the signal head. That's the coil over on the upper left corner of the diagram. The wiring has nothing to do with the suspension of the signal. It just simply provides the power to the signal lights.

If we look at photograph 2E in the circled item, we can see that there's a cross piece there that is supporting the two left turn signals That cross piece is attached to the vertical pipe that goes up into the swivel balancer.

(Tr. 23 - 24, 5/19). Hahn stated that this mounting system was standard in the industry.
According to the witness, the lights have a mounting mechanism which is designed to keep them from twisting.
The way this works is that the top of the signal heads and this is standard in the industry, it's an ITE standard, Institute of Transportation Engineering standard that requires a serrated top and a specific diameter pole to the top of the signal for the mounting pipe ware. This serrated part here is - the top and bottom of every signal is interchangeable with the hardware and various manufacturers. So if I can put a Kraushein signal in this application, I can put an Eagle signal in this application. They would both lock to this locking mechanism because they have the number of teeth with the same spacing.

The signal is held against this locking . . . device here and that's screwed into this piece of - this fitting here. Whatever it is, it could be a cross arm. It could be simply a vertical piece of pipe as you see here. There is a serrated locking ring and the serrated locking ring has two ears on it which fit in the notches in this piece of hardware.

Once you put this device together, you position the signal, rotate it the way you want it and then you tighten this down . . . Once you get it tight, secure it with this set screw.

(Tr. 27 - 28, 5/19). From the photographs in evidence, the witness averred that this was the type of locking mechanism on the light at this intersection.
The witness stated, based on his experience, that he would never expect a light to twist or turn when it is locked into place. If a light does twist then the serrated teeth tend to break off. Hahn stated that if the teeth are not replaced then twisting will eventually happen again.

In observing the light in question to this case, the expert said that the mechanism had to be loose and the teeth stripped because it would not turn unless the teeth were out of mesh or sheared off. Given the history that this light had twisted on two prior occasions,[3] The Court will apply the meaning originally agreed to by counsel: the individual left turn signal which had twisted on April 6, 1998 had also previously twisted on January 28, 1998 and February 26, 1998.
the witness opined that the light had not been repaired properly on the two prior accessions. The witness stated that the locking mechanism should have been investigated and changed. This proper repair would have prevented the light from twisting again.
On cross-examination, Hahn admitted that a passing vehicle, specifically a truck, could hit the light and twist it. The witness said this commonly happens with a garbage truck with extending arms that lift dumpsters. However, such an occurrence with enough force to break the locking mechanism and twist the light, would visibly damage the light itself which did not occur in the instant case.

Defendant's only witness was Emilio Sosa an employee of DOT and an expert in traffic light design and maintenance. On direct examination, Sosa observed that defendant's documents concerning the repairs at this intersection for the light twisting (Exhibit B) give no indication as to what caused the light to twist. Sosa stated that a number of things could cause a traffic light to twist: "wind, being pushed by an oversized vehicle or a vehicle loaded too high, being impacted by a vehicle, being snagged by a tarp as a vehicle drives underneath" (Tr. 36, 5/20). The witness stated that it was possible for a truck to hit the signal and not damage it.

On cross-examination, the witness stated it was important to make sure that the lights do not twist and that they are properly locked into place. Further, in his experience, the expert admitted that he had personally never seen a light twisted due to impact with a vehicle that was not damaged (Tr. 40, 5/20). Sosa testified that the design of the locking mechanism, in place at the accident location, do not have a high frequency of failure (Tr. 42, 5/20).

The facts, as found by the Court, are as follows: while traveling west on Del Drive claimant approached the intersection of Del Drive and Route 110, with the intent to turn southbound on Route 110; claimant stopped at a red light at the intersection; the left turn arrow for northbound to westbound traffic on Route 110 had twisted such that it faced westbound traffic on Del Drive; the light changed to green for Route 110 allowing northbound and northbound to westbound traffic to proceed; claimant observed the left turn arrow turn green and proceeded into the intersection; and as a result, claimant and the northbound police officer each had a green light at the time of the accident. The Court finds also that the light that twisted on April 6, 1998, did so due to improper repairs on two prior occasions.

The Court next turns to the question of defendant's negligence in failing to maintain the traffic light at the intersection. Defendant had been to this intersection on two occasions prior to the accident. On both of those occasions, the same turn light had to be repaired for a similar condition. Defendant, through direct testimony of Sosa and Exhibit B, demonstrates no cause for the twisting on any of the dates. The Court agrees that the initial cause of the light twisting on January 28, 1998 is unknown. However, the cause of the initial twisting is irrelevant. What is relevant in the instant case is what type of repairs occurred. The record is devoid of any testimony as to what specific actions defendant's employees took in correcting the twisted light on January 28, 1998 and again on February 26, 1998. Claimant's expert offered an opinion as to the cause of the twisting on April 6, 1998, namely, that due to previous improper repairs the light was bound to loosen again and twist, as demonstrated by the light twisting twice after the initial repair. Defendant's expert was less convincing. While offering testimony as to how a light could possibly twist, he offered no opinion as to the cause of the twisting on April 6, 1998.

While the State of New York is not the insurer of the safety of its roads (
Marshall v State of New York, 252 AD2d 852), "[t]he Department of Transportation has the duty to install, operate and maintain traffic control devices at the intersections of State highways (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1681)" (Wood v State of New York, 112 AD2d 612). In Meyer v State of New York, 51 AD2d 828, the Court found that the State's failure to correct a problem with a traffic light, which had been malfunctioning[4] over several months prior to the accident, was negligence in light of the State's duty to maintain the traffic light.
As previously stated, defendant had notice that there was a twisting problem with the traffic light for several months prior to the accident. There is no evidence to prove that defendant's repair and/or investigation into the problem with the traffic light were adequate. Thus, the Court finds that defendant's improper and negligent repairs of the traffic light created the condition on April 6, 1998. The Court also finds that defendant's negligence was the sole proximate cause of the accident. The uncontroverted testimony is that claimant and the police officer both observed a green light. Therefore, each driver was correct in assuming that he could enter the intersection and have the other drivers obey their red signals (
Baughman v Libasci, 30 AD2d 696). The Court does not find that the claimant's familiarity with the intersection either relieves the defendant of liability or imposes liability on claimant.
Accordingly, the Court finds defendant completely liable in respect to claimant's accident which occurred on April 6, 1998. A trial on the issue of damages will be scheduled as soon as practicable.

Let interlocutory judgment be entered accordingly.

September 28, 2004
Hauppauge, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]Del Drive is an east/west roadway which intersects with Route 110. East of the intersection with Route 110, the road is known as Del Drive while west of the intersection it is known as Executive Drive. It will be referred to as Del Drive herein.
[2]All such references are to the trial transcript.

[3]This history was stipulated to by defendant on December 16, 2002 (Exhibit 7). At trial, defense counsel (the same one who signed the stipulation) offered a different meaning to the stipulation. According to him, the signal number in the stipulation actually referred to the entire intersection and not the individual light in question in this accident. Claimant's counsel objected. It was his understanding, memorialized in a letter of October 22, 2002 (Exhibit 8), that the only light involved in discovery was the individual light in question. Based upon the stipulation, claimant terminated his discovery because the question of prior repair history had been resolved.

In further support of his position, defense counsel explained that he simply forwarded claimant's request for a stipulation to the Department of Transportation (hereinafter "DOT") and eventually was told by DOT that he could sign it. Defense counsel was not aware that DOT and claimant attributed different meanings to claimant's request. In effect, at trial, he sought to conform the stipulation to what he belatedly found out DOT was now saying it originally meant.

The Court finds defendant's argument to be in bad faith. What claimant's counsel sought in his October 22, 2002 letter is unambiguous. Claimant expressly stated that further discovery could be halted if the stipulation was signed. It was incumbent upon defense counsel to understand the meaning of a stipulation before binding the State. The Court can view this change of interpretation in one of two ways. First, defense counsel did not know DOT's understanding of the stipulation at the time it was signed. In this case, defendant signed the stipulation with the same understanding as claimant. The fact that defense counsel later learns of a different interpretation from DOT is defendant's problem created by a lack of communication between client and counsel.

The other view is that defense counsel knew DOT's interpretation of the stipulation at the time that he signed it. Rather than correct claimant's viewpoint, defendant signed the stipulation and then lay in wait for seventeen months to ambush his adversary at trial with DOT's version of the stipulation.

The Court believes the former scenario to be what occurred, but the Court cannot allow defendant to change the terms of the stipulation. To do so would be highly prejudicial to claimant who discontinued discovery based upon the executed stipulation. If the Court were to negate the stipulation, then a continuance would have to be granted to claimant to continue discovery. The Court finds this to be an unacceptable resolution.

The burden was on defendant to know the meaning of the stipulation. Defense counsel cannot sign a stipulation with a common understanding and then try to change it at trial almost a year and a half later when DOT, at trial, says it was a misunderstanding.

[4]The malfunction was not constant but had occurred on a number of occasions in the months preceding the accident.