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
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
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.
Upon consideration of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses
testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court makes the
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
"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
"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.
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
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.