New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

HAMILTON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-029-044, Claim No. 111326


State not liable for accident at intersection with malfunctioning traffic signal. DOT was notified of malfunction 29 minutes prior to accident. No proof of negligence or proximate cause.

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:
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO, ATTORNEY GENERALBy: Wanda Perez Maldonado, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 24, 2007
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant seeks damages for the loss of her vehicle allegedly as the result of a June 4, 2005 accident at the intersection of State Routes 22 and 35 in the Town of Bedford. It was undisputed that the traffic signal that normally controls the intersection was not functioning at the time of claimant’s accident, that defendant was notified of the malfunction at 10:10 p.m. and that claimant’s accident occurred 29 minutes later. The issues to be determined are whether defendant was negligent in its duty to maintain the subject intersection in a reasonably safe condition and whether such negligence was the proximate cause of the accident.

Claimant testified that she was driving from Poughkeepsie, New York to New Canaan, Connecticut following directions to a friend’s house. She had never driven on Route 35 in this area before. The weather was clear and the roads were dry. She exited from southbound I-684 onto eastbound Route 35 and drove in the right lane at about 35 m.p.h. looking for Route 121. Route 35 consists of two lanes in each direction without street lights. Claimant saw a sign indicating that an intersection with Route 22 was approaching. After less than one-half mile, she suddenly saw headlights approaching in her driver’s side window, from about 10 feet away. Her vehicle was struck in the left rear, spinning it around and causing it to strike the median guide rail. She stated her vehicle was “well across the middle” of the intersection when it was struck. A police officer responded to the scene “quickly.” [1] The officer’s accident report notes that the vehicle that struck claimant was driving southbound on Route 22 and that the “traffic light was not functioning at the intersection.” [2] Claimant was not aware that there was a traffic signal at the intersection until after the accident when she was told that it was not working.

The basis of the claim is claimant’s contention that 29 minutes was sufficient to require defendant to place some warning to drivers that the signal was out. She alleges that the failure to do so was negligent.

Richard Dillman, Regional Traffic Engineer for Region 8, which includes Westchester County, testified for the defendant. His duties include responsibility for the operation of traffic signals in the region. Dillman identified the Hudson Valley Transportation Management Center (HVTMC) as a joint operation of DOT and the State Police to monitor traffic problems, including signal malfunctions. He referred to a HVTMC incident report [3] indicating that on June 4 at 10:10 p.m. the HVTMC was informed that signal #W-274, the signal in question, was malfunctioning. The Bedford Town Police were called immediately and it was confirmed that there was no general power outage in the area. At 10:22, a Traffic Signal Malfunction Report (TSMR) [4] was issued resulting in an employee of Verdi Electric, a contractor responsible for maintenance of traffic signals, going to the site. At 11:28, Verdi Electric reported that there was no power in the box supplying the signal, which in turn resulted in a State Trooper notifying the local power utility, New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG). The TSMR indicates that the Bedford Police would notify HVTMC when the outage was repaired. At 9:00 the next morning, HVTMC was advised that NYSEG had fixed the problem and restored power to the signal. Dillman indicated that the State Police were aware of all reports coming in to the HVTMC and that they did not send a trooper to the location.

David Novick, the Bedford Town Police Officer who responded to claimant’s accident and who completed the accident report, was also called as a defense witness. He arrived at the scene between 10:40 and 10:45 p.m. The traffic conditions were “very light,” which was typical for that time of the evening. The intersection of Routes 35 and 22 was not one that Novick considered “major” or “substantial.” He noted that a driver eastbound on Route 35 would see signs indicating the upcoming intersection with Route 22 and corresponding signs on southbound Route 22 indicating the intersection with Route 35. The officer testified that the time that appears on the accident report – 10:39 p.m. – signifies the time when his dispatcher first received notice of the accident. The portion of the accident report that located the damage on each vehicle was consistent with claimant’s testimony that the front of the other vehicle contacted the left rear portion of claimant’s vehicle.

The officer confirmed that the cause of the accident was the malfunctioning signal, and that is what he wrote on the accident report. He testified that an additional causative factor was that the driver of the other vehicle failed to yield the right-of-way to claimant, who had entered the intersection first, although he did not write as much on the report, something he attributed to his haste to get off duty that evening.

Claimant, although not an attorney, did a credible job presenting her case in a cogent and straightforward fashion. Her position is simple: that the DOT should have placed some warning to drivers that the signal was out, that 29 minutes was sufficient time to have done so and that the failure to have done so was negligence.

There is no question that the State of New York has the duty to keep its roads in a reasonably safe condition for the traveling public (Friedman v State of New York, 67 NY2d 271 [1986]). Nevertheless, the State is not the insurer of the safety of those who use its highways, and in fulfilling its obligations to the public, it is entitled to assume that motorists will exercise reasonable care and obey the rules of the road (Tomassi v Town of Union, 46 NY2d 91 [1978]). The duty of reasonable care includes the duty to take “precautionary measures” upon discovering a “hazardous situation” (Rohweller v State of New York, 90 AD2d 650 [3d Dept 1982]). The question here is whether a malfunctioning traffic signal at this intersection at 10:10 p.m. constituted a hazardous condition requiring the posting of a warning and, if so, whether the failure to have done so within 29 minutes constituted negligence. On the record before the court, both of these questions must be answered in the negative.

Although there was disagreement at trial between claimant and Officer Novick as to whether the subject intersection was a “major” one, without any definition of that term, it was clear that the Bedford Police, who were notified of the signal outage by HVTMC prior to claimant’s accident, did not deem any warning necessary. There was no indication that any warning was placed, either before or after the accident. There was no evidence presented from which the court could conclude that the malfunctioning signal created so dangerous a condition at the intersection that the failure to post warnings constituted negligence.

Even had the outage created a condition that required that warnings be posted, the short time span between defendant being informed of the outage and claimant’s accident militates against a finding of a breach of the State’s duty of reasonable care. There was no testimony addressing the proximity of the nearest State Police barracks or what constituted a reasonable time for defendant to respond to the intersection and post warnings of the signal outage. All that is known is that DOT and the State Police were advised that the signal was out, immediately consulted with local police and then set in motion the procedure to diagnose and repair the problem. Given the specific circumstances of this intersection in late evening, neither the State Police nor the Bedford Police thought it necessary to post warnings at the intersection, beyond the existing signage. There is nothing in the record that would justify the court second-guessing those decisions and finding that the State’s duty of reasonable care was breached by the lack of additional actions, certainly within the 29 minute notice period.

Finally, the court notes that the absence of testimony from the driver of the vehicle that failed to yield the right-of-way and proceeded into the intersection striking claimant’s vehicle prevents any conclusion that the signal outage was the proximate cause of that driver’s actions. Although claimant was unfamiliar with these roads, the other driver was a local resident and may well have been aware that there was a signal at the intersection. Without her testimony, the court is unable to make any conclusion as to why she proceeded into the intersection without yielding to claimant, as proper adherence to the rules of the road would have required.

Although claimant did an impressive job in presenting her case, the proven facts fall well short of what was required to establish that defendant breached its duty of reasonable care and that such breach was the proximate cause of claimant’s accident. Accordingly, this claim must be dismissed. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

October 24, 2007
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1].Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the electronically-recorded trial proceedings.
[2].Exhibit 2 and Exhibit D.
[3].Exhibit A.
[4].Exhibit B.