New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

GUTIERREZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-010-037, Claim No. 107946


Defendant found 100 percent liable for rear-end collision with another vehicle.

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):

Terry Jane Ruderman
Claimant's attorney:
RICHARD J. KATZ, ESQ.By: Michael Barnett, Esq., Of Counsel
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General for the State of New YorkBy: John Healey, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 22, 2005
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant seeks damages for injuries she sustained on September 20, 2002, when defendant's vehicle struck claimant's vehicle in the rear while she was stopped at a traffic light. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.
n September 2, 2002, claimant was driving a Lincoln Town Car from her home in Brooklyn to the Village of Portchester in Westchester County. As a livery driver, claimant was familiar with the route and exited at 26E of the Hutchinson River Parkway (the Hutch) onto Westchester Avenue. She was traveling eastbound on Westchester Avenue in Rye Brook at approximately 12:00 p.m. The weather was clear and sunny and the road was dry. Traffic was light and claimant testified that she was traveling at a speed of approximately 30 mph. After approximately one mile, claimant approached the Intersection where the entrances to the Rye Town Hilton Hotel and the General Foods building intersect with Westchester Avenue. From a distance of half a block, claimant observed a red light at that intersection. She slowed down and looked in her rearview mirror. The closest car was a block behind her. Claimant stopped beyond the stop line. At that point, she observed a red truck, on her right, drive through the red light. Claimant then felt an impact to the rear of her car from defendant's minivan. Claimant had not observed the minivan prior to the impact. Claimant called the police on her cell phone and they responded to the scene.
The driver of the minivan, David Bennett, Jr., testified that in 2002
he was employed by the New York State Department of Transportation as a Civil Engineer II. His duties included the designing and inspection of bridges. On September 20, 2002, Bennett was inspecting bridges accompanied by Matthew Diamond. Just prior to the accident, they had inspected the Anderson Hill Road bridge over Interstate 684. They then proceeded to Westchester Avenue from Lincoln Avenue and headed east. They were unfamiliar with the local roads. They did not have a map and they were looking for the Hutch to reach their next bridge assignment, the Manhattanville Road bridge. Bennett testified that, from a distance of one-quarter mile, he noticed the General Foods building and engaged Diamond in a conversation about it. Bennett acknowledged that he probably turned to Diamond at that juncture.
Bennett testified that he was traveling at a speed of approximately 20 mph when he observed
claimant's vehicle, from a distance of 30 to 50 feet, stopped at the Intersection. He applied his brakes to stop; however the minivan skidded 20 feet before hitting claimant's automobile in the rear. Bennett conceded that he did not know the color of the traffic light at the time of impact because the first time he observed the traffic signal was after he struck claimant's car. After the accident, Bennett learned that the traffic signal was malfunctioning and had changed from green to red without passing through a yellow cycle. While the police officer was still at the scene, Bennett observed a second accident occur at the Intersection.
Matthew Diamond, Bennett's passenger, testified that, from a distance of 30 feet, he saw
claimant's vehicle come to an abrupt stop and he noticed that the traffic light had changed directly from green to red. However, according to Diamond, everything happened so quickly that he was unable to alert Bennett. Diamond stated that the minivan skidded 15 to 20 feet before striking claimant's car.
Village of Rye Brook Police Officer Eric Dengler responded to the accident. He explained that Lincoln Avenue crossed Westchester Avenue approximately 500 feet before the Intersection. There was a light at Lincoln Avenue which was the last light prior to the one at the Intersection. Dengler also explained that access to the Hutch was from Lincoln Avenue. Dengler observed that the traffic signal at the Intersection was not progressing through its normal cycle and, instead, was changing directly from green to red without passing through yellow. Dengler also observed that
claimant's vehicle was beyond the stop line. Based upon his observations, he concluded that the malfunctioning light was a contributing factor of the accident and recorded his conclusions on the Police Accident Report (Ex. 1).[1]
Upon consideration of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court makes the following findings.
Claimant, whose livelihood was obtained by employment as a livery driver and who was familiar with the roadways and the route she was traveling, was stopped at the intersection. The fact that her vehicle was situated beyond the stop line and that there was testimony that the traffic light was malfunctioning after the accident does not detract from this Court's finding that defendant's operation of the minivan was the sole proximate cause of the accident.
"A rear-end collision with a stopped or stopping vehicle creates a prima facie case of liability against the operator of the rearmost vehicle, thereby requiring that operator to rebut the inference of negligence by providing a non-negligent explanation for the collision" (
Argiro v Norfolk Contract Carrier, 275 AD2d 384, 385; see also Danza v Longieliere, 256 AD2d 434, 435 ["defendant's testimony to the effect that the accident was caused by the plaintiff's sudden stop was insufficient to rebut the presumption that he was negligent"]). Notably, Bennett was unfamiliar with the area, did not have a map, and was heading in the wrong direction trying to find the Hutch. Significantly, Bennett conceded that, as he approached the intersection, he had probably turned to his passenger while engaged in conversation about the General Foods building. Bennett's passenger testified that from a distance of 30 feet, the traffic light changed directly from green to red and he observed claimant's vehicle come to an abrupt stop; however he was unable to alert Bennett prior to impacting claimant's vehicle.
"It was also the duty of the
defendant to operate his automobile with reasonable care with regard to the actual and potential hazards existing from road and traffic conditions; to have his automobile under reasonable control; and to see that which, under the facts and circumstances, he should have seen by the proper use of his senses" (McCarthy v Miller, 139 AD2d 500). Moreover, if Bennett's own passenger was able to observe what was unfolding, then Bennett should have observed that which was there to be seen and operated his vehicle accordingly. Notably, Bennett testified that he was traveling at a speed of 20 mph and that from a distance of 30 to 50 feet, he observed claimant's vehicle stopped at the intersection. Drivers are under a duty to maintain a safe distance between their vehicles and the vehicles in front of them (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1129[a]; Reed v New York City Tr. Auth., 299 AD2d 330, 332). The weather was clear and the road was dry. Therefore, had Bennett not been negligent, he should have been able to avoid striking claimant's vehicle (see Sass v Ambu Trans., 238 AD2d 570 [defendant breached duty to maintain a reasonably safe distance between himself and traffic he was following and to be aware of traffic conditions, including a stoppage in traffic caused by another driver several cars ahead of defendant]). Under all the circumstances, the Court finds that Bennett's inattentiveness as a driver was the sole proximate cause of the accident.
Contrary to
defendant's arguments, the emergency doctrine is not applicable in this case because defendant was not confronted with a "sudden and unforeseen occurrence not of the actor's making" (Smith v Perfectaire Co., 270 AD2d 410; see also Rivera v New York City Transit Auth., 77 NY2d 322, 327). Rather, it was of the actor's making, to wit, the driver's own inattentiveness while turned toward his passenger and engaged in conversation prevented him from seeing that which was there to be seen (see Santanastasio v Doe, 301 AD2d 511, 512 [the evidence "not only fails to rebut the presumption of negligence, rather, it reinforces the conclusion that the plaintiff's actions, *** was the sole proximate cause of the accident"]).
Accordingly, the Court finds defendant 100 percent liable for
claimant's injuries. All motions not heretofore ruled upon are DENIED. A trial on the issue of damages will be held as soon as practicable.

June 22, 2005
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] Claimant moved to strike that portion of Dengler's testimony which offered an opinion as to the cause of the accident. The Court notes that while the officer was permitted to testify as to his conclusions and exhibit 1 was received in evidence, this Court was not persuaded by the officer's conclusions and opinions. Notably, the officer did not witness the accident, nor was he qualified to render an opinion as to its cause (see Cleary v City of New York, 234 AD2d 411).