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).
Across the intersection of G Road and C Road there is a white sign which states
“No Thoroughfare” “No
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
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
that the stopping distance for a vehicle traveling 64 m.p.h. would be a total of
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
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
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
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
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
, 29 AD3d 651,1
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
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.