New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

RAMIREZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-033-576, Claim No. 106637


Case Information

ISABEL RAMIREZ, as Administratrix of the Estate of JOSEPH RAMIREZ, deceased, and, ISABEL RAMIREZ, Individually
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):

James J. Lack
Claimant’s attorney:
John L. Juliano, P.C.By: Jonathan C. Juliano, Esq.
Defendant’s attorney:
Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney GeneralBy: John M. Shields, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
June 29, 2007

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


This is a timely filed claim by Isabel Ramirez, individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Joseph Ramirez, deceased (hereinafter “claimant”), for the wrongful death of Joseph Ramirez (hereinafter decedent). On December 12 and 13, 2006, a bifurcated trial was held on the issue of liability.

After all of the testimony is considered, there is little difference between the parties as to the cause of the accident that resulted in Mr. Ramirez’s death. The real question is determining the proximate cause of the accident.

Four witnesses testified at trial. Claimant called Det. Thomas Quaranta of the Suffolk County Police Department and Francis Zieman, the Pilgrim security officer patrolling the grounds at the time of the accident. Claimant’s last witness was Lance Robson, an accident reconstructionist. Defendant’s only witness was Steven Coulon, an accident reconstructionist.

The accident occurred on August 31, 2001, at approximately 1:00 a.m. on the grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center (hereinafter “Pilgrim”), Brentwood, New York. Decedent was a passenger in a vehicle that was traveling west on G Road on Pilgrim’s grounds.

G Road runs approximately one half mile in length. It begins at the Sagtikos Parkway and terminates at its intersection with C Road also on the grounds of Pilgrim. According to Zieman, there were two stop signs along G Road and a couple of “20 m.p.h.” speed-limit signs. He also testified that he recalled a “No Trespassing” sign along the road. The Court notes a “No Trespassing” sign at the ramp from the Sagtikos Parkway onto G Road (defendant’s Exhibits A and E).[1] Across the intersection of G Road and C Road there is a white sign which states “No Thoroughfare” “No Trespassing”[2] and “To Exit” with a red arrow under the words (claimant’s Exhibit 22). According to Zieman, G Road is a non-public road on the grounds of Pilgrim and not for the public’s general use. However, Zieman concluded that the public uses the road on a regular basis without interference.

G Road is lit by overhead street lamps at regular intervals along its entire length on the north side of the road. The street lamps continue along C Road. The street lamp at the corner of G Road and C Road extends diagonally over the intersection (claimant’s Exhibits 1, 7 and 26).

Across the intersection from where G Road ends is the entrance to an unlit access road for a LIPA[3] plant. There is also access to the power lines and poles along the access road. After G Road ends, there is crushed stone and dirt, followed by an asphalt road to the left of the dirt entrance (claimant’s Exhibits 2 - 26). The white sign described above is directly across from the end of G Road. According to the police photographs taken at the time of the accident (claimant’s Exhibits 2 and 15), the sign was partially obscured by vegetation.

According to Quaranta, there were three people in the car at the time of the accident. Decedent was a passenger in the front seat of the vehicle. The other two individuals in the vehicle were Terrance McCray (hereinafter “McCray”) and William Sullivan (hereinafter “Sullivan”). McCray was found in the backseat of the vehicle and Sullivan was found walking on Pilgrim’s grounds a couple of blocks away from the accident. Quaranta testified that when Sullivan was found, he admitted to being in the vehicle and stated that McCray was driving.[4] The first person at the scene of the accident was Zieman. He had noticed the vehicle on G Road and heard the accident happen. When police officers arrived at the scene of the accident, McCray was out of the vehicle and an odor of alcohol was detected. McCray was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Quaranta noted that during the course of the investigation it became apparent that McCray may not have been the driver. However, there was no clear evidence to indicate that Sullivan was driving the vehicle either. According to the police investigation, the driver of the vehicle is undetermined, although there is no doubt that decedent was not the driver of the vehicle which, for the purpose of this matter, is the only relevant detail.

As previously stated, Zieman (parked on a service road parallel to G Road) saw the vehicle prior to the accident. According to Zieman’s estimation, the vehicle was traveling at a rate of speed of 70 to 75 m.p.h. He could observe one of the two stop signs from where he was located and stated that the vehicle did not slow down for the stop sign.

The vehicle failed to turn onto C Road at the intersection with G Road. Instead, it went across the intersection, left the pavement, proceeded approximately 220 feet on grass and dirt, struck a LIPA pole and then continued another 15 feet south before coming to a rest. According to the police reconstruction of the accident (claimant’s Exhibit 1), the vehicle traveled 64 feet after it left the pavement before it started to brake. The vehicle then skidded an additional 150 feet (claimant’s Exhibit 1 - the Accident Reconstruction Analysis Report) before striking the pole. It is estimated that the vehicle was traveling at a minimum rate of speed of 64 m.p.h. at the beginning of the skid. The vehicle was also estimated to be traveling at approximately 46 m.p.h. when it struck the pole. These estimates were based upon measurements taken at the scene, police photographs and the crush damage to the vehicle.

The parties’ experts agree with the estimates of speed made by the police. Coulon emphasized the estimates were on the conservative side as is proper in accident reconstruction. One of the differences between the experts was where they say the driver perceived the end of the road. According to the experts, a vehicle travels in feet per second at approximately 1 ½ times its rate of speed. For instance, both experts agreed that when the vehicle was traveling at 64 m.p.h. it was traveling about 94 feet per second.[5] The experts also stated that the average reaction time to an event is 2.5 seconds from perception to action. However, upon cross-examination Robson stated that an estimate of 2.5 seconds is a reaction time which would include 95% of drivers and that most drivers will have a quicker reaction time. In the instant matter, Robson definitively states that the driver’s reaction time was less than one second. This is based upon the fact that the vehicle began its braking skid 60 to 100 feet after leaving the pavement of the roadway.[6] Coulon, in reconstructing the accident, used the 2.5 second average. He stated that this was the standard in reconstructing accidents. Thus, assuming a rate of speed of 64 m.p.h. and traveling 94 feet per second, the driver would have perceived the end of the road about 235 feet east of where he began to skid or about 175 feet east of the end of the pavement.[7]

Coulon was asked what the total stopping distance would be for a vehicle traveling 64 m.p.h. Coulon made the calculations using a coefficient of friction used for wet pavement. According to the experts, this was the standard used in their industry. Coulon noted that the actual stopping distance on dry pavement would be less.[8] Coulon calculated that the stopping distance for a vehicle traveling 64 m.p.h. would be a total of 689.81 feet.[9]

According to these calculations, a vehicle doing 20 m.p.h. would stop in 117 feet. Therefore, given that the driver perceived the end of the road about 175 feet before it ended, a vehicle traveling 20 m.p.h. would have stopped about 58 feet east of the end of the road. A vehicle traveling 25 m.p.h. would have stopped in 161 feet or about 17 feet east of the end of the pavement.

Coulon’s opinion was that the accident was caused by excessive speed.

Robson agreed that excessive speed was a contributing factor to the accident. In addition, Robson opined that the failure of defendant to post warning signs as to the abrupt end of G Road was a proximate cause of the accident. Along the one half mile route of G Road heading west, there are no signs indicating that the road ends and traffic must make a 90o northerly turn onto C Road. Robson testified that the Department of Transportation uses the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (hereinafter “Manual”) when determining placement of signs on roadways. According to the Manual (17 NYCRR 200 et. seq.), Robson opines there should be a “Right Turn” and “5 m.p.h.” sign approximately 200 feet before the intersection with C Road to a driver’s right. The sign at the intersection, at the time of the accident, did not meet any specifications within the Manual.

Robson testified that the driver of the vehicle had an expectancy that G Road would continue straight because G Road is a straight road for the one half mile that it exists. The LIPA poles on the south side of the road run in a straight line and continue in that line along G Road and continue next to the LIPA access road. Robson also stated that since the overhead lights on the street lamps on the north side of G Road run in a straight line, the driver of the vehicle had a reasonable expectation that the road would continue straight after the intersection with C Road. Robson admitted on cross-examination that the overhead lights do not continue on the access road but make the turn and continue on C Road.

Coulon did not believe that the lack of warning signs was a proximate cause of the accident. According to Coulon, the Manual is “speed driven”, meaning that the faster the speed limit on a road, the more warning signs are required. If the speed is slower, then less signs are required. As detailed above, Coulon stated that if the driver had been going 20 m.p.h., then he would have been able to perceive the end of the roadway and stop before the end. Noting that the pole claimant struck was approximately 200 feet beyond the edge of the roadway, Coulon testified that a vehicle traveling 40 m.p.h. would have been able to stop without hitting the pole.1[0]

It is incumbent upon claimant to establish: the existence of a foreseeable dangerous condition; that the State created the condition or had either actual or constructive notice of the condition; that the State failed to remedy the condition within a reasonable time; that such condition was a proximate cause of claimant’s accident; and that damages were sustained (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836). It is well established that the State is required to maintain its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition to prevent foreseeable injury (Kissinger v State of New York, 126 AD2d 139). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its roads (Tomassi v Town of Union, 46 NY2d 91). The fact that an accident occurs will not, however, create the presumption of liability (Tomassi v Town of Union, supra). Liability cannot attach unless the ascribed negligence of the State in maintaining a particular highway is a proximate cause of the accident (Hearn v State of New York, 157 AD2d 883, lv denied 75 NY2d 710). In addition, as to drivers on the roadways, they must see what there is to be seen (Weigand v United Traction Co., 221 NY 39).

First, the Court notes that there has been no evidence as to who maintains G Road. There is some evidence in the record that G Road is a private road at Pilgrim. There is also evidence in the record that the traveling public uses G Road without interference and with the knowledge of Pilgrim. However, information as to who maintains the road or is responsible for signs on the road is absent from the record. Claimant argues that this is a public highway subject to the Manual. Defendant argues that this is not a public highway within the meaning of the Manual.

The Court will assume arguendo that the Manual should have been used to determine signs for this road. The Court will further assume that defendant should have put signs signaling the end of G Road. Even assuming these two key arguments in favor of claimant, the Court cannot find judgment in favor of claimant. If it is likely that an accident occurred from causes other than the State’s negligence, then the inference that defendant’s negligence caused the accident may not be drawn (Johnson v State of New York, 27 AD3d 1061).

Robson’s use of a reaction time under one second is not credible. While it fits the claimant’s theory that the end of the road was not perceived by the driver until he went off the road, it ignores the circumstances surrounding the accident. First, there is no clear answer as to who the driver of the vehicle was.1[1] In addition, Robson testified that as part of his analysis he considered the police file, including the statements contained therein. Contained in the statement of McCray and Sullivan was evidence that both had imbibed alcohol and/or smoked marijuana. While the Court is not accepting this as true, it would seem that an expert would consider this in determining a reaction time of a driver.

Nor does the Court find any merit to Robson’s testimony as to what the driver’s expectancy was in this case. It was 1:00 a.m. and dark at the time of the accident. The overhead lights provide a visual cue that the road ends and drivers have to turn and continue on C Road, because the lights do continue on C Road and not on the LIPA access road. Since there are no lights on the LIPA access road, a driver would also have a difficult time perceiving that the dark brown poles along G Road continue in the same straight line along the access road.

In Martinez v County of Suffolk, 17 AD3d 643, and Martinez v State of New York, 29 AD3d 651,1[2] an intersection was maintained by both the County of Suffolk and the State of New York. The foliage at the intersection had become overgrown so as to obscure the vision of motorists on the intersecting roadways. The claimant/plaintiff was stopped at a light which crossed over the eastbound service road of the Long Island Expressway. When the light turned green for her, she proceeded into the intersection. She was unable to see any traffic on the service road to her right because of the placement of her stop line and the overgrown foliage. As she entered the intersection, claimant/plaintiff was hit by a vehicle which went through the red light on the service road. The Appellate Division held that the sole proximate cause of the accident was that driver’s disobedience of the traffic control device.

In the instant case, the driver completely ignored all traffic control devices. The driver never stopped for at least one of the stop signs on G Road and was traveling at more than three times the posted rate of speed for the roadway.

The Court finds the analysis of the driver’s perception and reaction time as testified to by Coulon as the more credible analysis.

If the Court accepted Robson’s statement that a warning sign should have been placed 200 feet east of the end of G Road, the accident still would have occurred. As previously mentioned, a vehicle traveling at a rate of 64 m.p.h.1[3] would require a stopping distance of 689.81 feet. The pole would be 440 feet west of the warning sign Robson states would be sufficient.

Assuming arguendo the Court were to find defendant negligent for not having a warning sign signaling the end of G Road, it is not the proximate cause of this accident. The driver had approximately 220 feet of clear zone prior to any obstacle. The sole proximate cause of the accident was the driver.

Based upon the foregoing, Court finds in favor of defendant. Any motions not specifically ruled upon are denied.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

June 29, 2007
Hauppauge, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1].These photographs were taken some time after the accident. The photographs were not taken at the same time, but were taken at least a year apart from each other (the Court further notes a deposition sticker on Exhibit A of 5/13/03 and a date stamp on Exhibit E of 5/3/04).
[2].The “No Trespassing” words, while visible, appear to have been gone over in black, as if to be crossed out.
[3].Long Island Power Authority
[4].According to the police paperwork (claimant’s Exhibit 1), McCray was the owner of the vehicle.
[5].The Court notes that 1 ½ times the rate of speed is a generalization. The actual calculation by the experts was 2 feet per second less.
[6].Coulon had the beginning of the skid at 60 feet west of the pavement. Robson estimated that the skid began 70 to 100 feet west of the pavement.
[7].See footnote 6.
[8].The Court notes that based on the testimony of Quaranta, and according to claimant’s Exhibit 1, the weather was clear and dry and the pavement was dry.
[9].This includes 234.7 feet to perceive and react and 455.11 feet to stop the vehicle.
1[0].This statement assumed the perception of the end of the roadway 175 feet east of the end of the road.
[1]1.While McCray passed a polygraph test stating he was not the driver, there is no forensic evidence to support Sullivan as the driver.
1[2].Both cases involve the same claimant. Due to the Constitutional division of New York’s courts, an action was maintained in supreme court and the court of claims.
1[3].This assumes the speed determined at the beginning of the vehicle’s skid and not the 70 to 75 m.p.h. estimated by Zieman.