This is a timely filed claim by Joseph A.
(hereinafter "claimant"), for
injuries sustained on the grounds of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital
(hereinafter "Pilgrim"), West Brentwood, New York, on December 8, 2002. The
claim of Carolyn E. Mennella is derivative in nature. On July 27, 2004, a
bifurcated trial was held as to the issue of liability.
Claimant's case consisted of two witnesses, claimant and New York State Forest
Ranger David Kallen. Ranger Kallen testified that he was working at Pilgrim on
the December 8, 2002. He began his tour of duty at approximately 2:00 p.m. and
was patrolling the woods and grounds of Pilgrim. According to Ranger Kallen,
there is a heavy amount of illegal ATV (all terrain vehicle) traffic on the
grounds. On the incident date, claimant was driving a 6 x 6 utility style ATV.
Ranger Kallen estimated that the top speed would probably be about 30 m.p.h. on
a straight, flat surface. At the time that Ranger Kallen was patrolling, he was
with an Environmental Conservation Officer, Matt Harger, who was also on an
Ranger Kallen and Officer Harger encountered claimant and a group of his
friends who were riding on trails on Pilgrim grounds. The officers were stopped
along a trail when claimant and his friends passed. Ranger Kallen states that
he called out to identify himself as a police officer and asked the group to
stop. The riders kept driving. Ranger Kallen could then see Officer Harger
riding alongside claimant, heard him identify himself as a police officer and
directed claimant to stop. Ranger Kallen was following along behind at a lesser
speed (about 15 m.p.h.) than claimant and his group were traveling. The other
riders, who initially were driving away, stopped on the trail. However,
claimant accelerated and sped away. Officer Harger stopped with the large group
on the trail, while Ranger Kallen followed the path claimant had taken. Ranger
Kallen continued at approximately 15 m.p.h. even after claimant accelerated
away. Ranger Kallen could see claimant on the trail in front of him but lost
him for a few seconds when the trail "snaked" around.
As Ranger Kallen came around the curve, he saw claimant had crashed into a
chain link fence. Claimant was approximately 20 to 35 feet from where Ranger
Kallen came out of the "S" turn (Transcript p. 27). Upon seeing claimant,
Ranger Kallen said he immediately applied his brakes, which locked up and caused
him to skid into the rear of claimant's ATV.
Ranger Kallen's ATV drove up the back of claimant's ATV and turned on its side.
Ranger Kallen testified that he was able to jump off of his ATV because it was
turning over slowly.
Claimant's version of the events leading to the contact between the two
vehicles differs. Claimant states he went to Pilgrim with friends. There were
seven people on five ATV's. Claimant states that he had been riding
approximately three times a week for a year. He admits the ATV was owned by his
father and that he was not licensed to use it. Claimant states that he was
riding at Pilgrim approximately two hours. Further, he stated that while he had
never ridden at Pilgrim before, he saw others on that day riding, as well as
evidence of heavy ATV use. In fact, claimant said he rode on what appeared to
be a man made track complete with jumps.
According to claimant, he and his friends were on the way to exit the Pilgrim
grounds when they encountered the officers. Claimant states that his ATV was a
racing machine (Transcript p. 96) and he was traveling at about 35 m.p.h. when
he encountered the officers. Claimant testified that one of the officers pulled
alongside him and was telling him to stop and was gesturing to the trail to pull
over. Claimant was following his friends while the officer was attempting to
stop them. Eventually, claimant states that his friends stopped and pulled
over, but he accelerated away because he was "scared" - he did not know the
person was a "cop" and he was "afraid of being hurt" (Transcript p. 95).
Claimant accelerated to 45 m.p.h. (Transcript p. 85). The officer who was
beside claimant turned away and stopped with the group of claimant's friends.
Claimant proceeded down the trail, which he states has an "S" turn in it.
Claimant approached the turn and was half way through it, when he looked back
and saw no one following him. Claimant approached the fence to go around it and
exit to the street (defendant's Exhibit M), when he slowed down and was hit in
the rear. Claimant then fishtailed into the fence. After the accident,
claimant came to realize that he was hit by Ranger Kallen.
The Court finds no credibility in claimant's version of the events that
occurred and rejects his testimony as not worthy of belief. Claimant states
that he was too scared to stop his ATV in the middle of the day for someone he
did not know. Yet claimant was following his friends and saw them pull over and
then he decided to accelerate to 45 m.p.h. Nor does the Court believe that
claimant was not aware that Officer Harger was a police officer. According to
the testimony, Officer Harger's uniform was not obstructed by a jacket. The
Court also finds Ranger Kallen's testimony that the officers identified
themselves to be credible.
The Court finds claimant to have no regard for the law or authority figures.
On cross-examination, claimant freely admitted that he always drove his ATV on
public streets even though neither he nor the ATV were licensed for that type of
travel. In addition, claimant admits that he saw the signs prohibiting such
vehicles on Pilgrim grounds. Claimant clearly disregarded the signs and drove
his ATV where it did not belong.
General Obligations Law §9-103(1)(a) states that a property owner "owes no
duty to keep the premises safer for entry or use by other . . . or to give
warning of any hazardous condition or use of or structure or activity on such
premises" to persons entering for certain recreational activities. The
operation of an ATV is one of the named activities. The State of New York is
provided the protection of GOL §9-103(1)(a) (See Sega v State of New
York, 60 NY2d 183).
Each of the parties testified that the Pilgrim grounds were heavily used by ATV
vehicles. Ranger Kallen testified that he was aware of the ATV use and that is
why he was patrolling the grounds. Claimant testified that he saw evidence,
including a man made race track, of heavy ATV use. The GOL provision protects
the State from liability for the claimant's difficulty in navigating the exit as
he came off of the "S" turn (See Wiggs v Panzer, 187 AD2d 504; and
Albright v Metz, 217 AD2d 123).
Claimant stated that he accelerated to 45 m.p.h. and did not slow down until he
was approaching the fence. The Court is mindful that this was claimant's first
time riding on the Pilgrim grounds and that he was not familiar with the trails.
The Court finds that claimant was traveling at a high rate of speed and was
unable to handle the "S" turn at the high rate of speed and head toward the
exit. Claimant's negligence was the sole cause of his accident with the fence
as well as the accident with Ranger Kallen.
Based on the foregoing, the Court finds for the defendant and the Claim is
dismissed. All motions not specifically ruled upon are denied. The Clerk is
directed to close the file.