Steven Christopher (“Claimant”) filed claim number 108185 on August
25, 2003 and an amended claim was filed on September 15, 2003, alleging the New
York State Department of Correctional Services (“DOCS”) is
responsible for injuries Claimant incurred in a motor vehicle accident.
Specifically, Claimant asserts that Defendant’s agent, Correction Officer
Anthony M. Sindoni, recklessly operated a DOCS bus, causing a collision with
another vehicle at the intersection of Sumner Road and Route 77 in the Town of
Darien, Genesee County, New York. I held a trial on the issue of liability only
on July 24, 2008 in Rochester, New York.
Deputy Dana Richardson of the Genesee County Police Department
(“Department”) investigated the accident and testified at trial.
He is a Road Patrol Officer and has been with the Department 15 years. On
September 20, 2001, Deputy Richardson was working the 6:45 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
shift assigned to patrol the “West Zone.” At approximately 2:20
p.m. he received a call from the Department’s dispatcher to respond to a
motor vehicle accident at Route 77 and Sumner Road. He testified that he was
familiar with this intersection. Route 77 is a two-lane road running north and
south. Sumner Road is a two-lane road running east and west. There is no
turning lane at the intersection (Exhibits 4, 6). The north side of the
intersection is marked with a double solid yellow line. The south side has a
solid yellow line on the center right and a broken yellow line on the left
center, facing north.
Deputy Richardson has been trained in accident reconstruction. He described
his two week class as “basic”; he learned how to take measurements
and photographs, analyze skid and yaw marks and how to plot an accident scene on
paper. He is also familiar with drag factors in determining the speed of motor
When he arrived at the scene, Deputy Richardson observed the DOCS vehicle, a
2000 El Dorado bus-style vehicle, south of the intersection on Route 77, facing
south on the western shoulder. The other vehicle in the accident, a white 1995
Dodge Ram pick-up truck with a trailer was east of the intersection on Sumner
Road on the southern shoulder facing east (see also Exhibit 4). Deputy
Richardson testified that the first thing he did was go to each vehicle to check
if anyone needed medical assistance and to acquire the drivers’
identification and licenses. No one needed emergency medical attention.
He testified that the 1995 white Dodge Ram was driven by Michael Pinelli. That
vehicle was damaged on the front driver side quarter panel, across the front and
on the bumper. As far as he knew, this vehicle had to be towed away from the
scene. Deputy Richardson did check Mr. Pinelli’s turn signals and found
them to be in working order. The El Dorado minibus was driven by Correction
Officer Anthony M. Sindoni. This vehicle was damaged on the passenger side
“slider” or bus style, door. There also appears to be damage to the
back side of the front right wheel well (Exhibits 8, 9).
Deputy Richardson’s opinion was that the accident happened when three
vehicles, the Pinelli vehicle, a tractor-trailer truck and the Sindoni bus, were
traveling southbound on Route 77 and the traffic slowed down just before the
Sumner Road intersection. The Sindoni bus then pulled into the left northbound
lane and proceeded to pass the tractor-trailer. When the Sindoni bus started to
overtake the Pinelli vehicle, it was hit on the passenger side by the Pinelli
vehicle making a left-hand turn. This opinion appears to be based on Deputy
Richardson’s conversations with both drivers and the damage to the
vehicles that he was able to observe. Deputy Richardson admitted he did not
analyze skid or yaw marks in the road or take any measurements or otherwise
attempt to reconstruct this accident commensurate with his accident
Deputy Richardson testified about the contents of his police report. He stated
he drew a diagram of the moment of impact that depicted the Pinelli vehicle
turning left onto Sumner Road with a tractor-trailer immediately behind him.
The Sindoni bus is to the left of the Pinelli vehicle and slightly ahead.
Deputy Richardson exercised “officer’s discretion” and did not
issue any tickets. He recollected at trial that he believed both drivers told
him a third vehicle was involved, but no other vehicle was at the accident site
when Deputy Richardson arrived. There also seemed to be a discrepancy between
Deputy Richardson’s written notes, his police report, his deposition
testimony and his testimony at trial regarding who told him there was a vehicle
behind Mr. Pinelli and in front of Officer Sindoni.
Mr. Pinelli is currently employed by the City of Buffalo as an equipment
operator. On the date of the accident, Mr. Pinelli was driving his own vehicle,
a Dodge one-ton “Dooley” with two sets of back tires. He was towing
a fried dough trailer approximately 20 feet long and 12 feet high. The trailer
and his Dodge truck were the same width.
He testified he was traveling south on Route 77 as he approached the Sumner
Road intersection, intending to make a left-hand turn. He stopped at the
intersection to allow a car traveling north to make a right-hand turn onto
Sumner Road. After that car cleared the intersection, Mr. Pinelli pulled out
and began to turn when the “bus came out of nowhere and wrecked me”
at such a speed that Mr. Pinelli thought the bus was going to tip over from the
impact. Mr. Pinelli stated the bus kept going and pulled over on the side of
Route 77 and he completed his left-hand turn to get his vehicle and trailer out
of the intersection. Mr. Pinelli did not see the bus until he heard the noise
from the impact.
Mr. Pinelli stated he left his vehicle to walk over to the bus to make sure
everyone was all right. He observed the damage to the bus’ door and right
front corner. The damage to his truck was on the left front corner. He walked
back to his vehicle and later observed another bus arrive. People came off
Officer Sindoni’s bus and walked onto the empty bus.
On cross-examination, Mr. Pinelli recalled that there was other traffic behind
him, but I did not get the impression Mr. Pinelli was certain of what types of
vehicles were actually on Route 77 traveling south behind him.
Claimant testified that he was being transferred out of Gowanda Correctional
Facility and boarded the bus at either 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. on the day of the
accident. The bus stopped at Collins Correctional Facility then at Wende
Correctional Facility (“Wende”) where he and the other inmate
passengers had lunch. The bus left Wende at approximately 1:30 p.m. Claimant
testified that he was seated on the passenger side in the third or fourth row of
seats on the aisle. There were no seat belts on the bus, nor were there any
windows except for the one by the driver and the windshield.
Claimant testified that he closed his eyes to rest and was “in and out of
falling asleep” when he heard a “loud bang” and the bus
“tilted up a little bit.” Claimant got “bumped” by the
inmate seated to his right and fell to the aisle floor, but was able to climb
back into his seat. He stated that the other inmates sitting on the aisle in
the passenger side seats also “got thrown.” The inmates seated on
the left side of the bus remained seated.
Claimant observed no damage to the inside of the bus. He did watch the guard
kick open the bus door so the occupants could exit. Claimant exited and noticed
a “big white trailer.” He stated that the bus was parked on the
right side of Route 77, facing the same direction they had been traveling.
The State called Anthony M. Sindoni, a Correction Officer at Wende. He has
been a DOCS employee for 23 years. Prior to that, he was a police officer in
Harriman, New York, where he had graduated from the Police Academy in 1985. On
the day of the accident, his bid was “Hub Transportation Officer.”
He was en route to Attica Correctional Facility and Wyoming Correctional
Facility from Wende when the accident happened.
He was driving a DOCS transport vehicle that seated 20 passengers. He first
saw the white pick-up truck towing the “small white trailer” a
little north of the town of Darien. It was traveling in front of him in the
southbound lane. Officer Sindoni stated that he followed the pick-up until the
time of the accident. He also testified at trial that there was no vehicle
between the transport vehicle he was driving and the pick-up.
Officer Sindoni stated that the pick-up was moving slowly, between 14 and 20
miles per hour, and weaving back and forth in his lane. He determined that the
pick-up was a “hazard,” that is, he felt the slow driving could
create a situation where inmates could escape so he decided to get out from
behind the pick-up truck. Officer Sindoni stated that he pulled out into the
northbound lane to pass the pick-up truck. He stated that the pick-up truck
never stopped or signaled a left-hand turn prior to the accident. The only
vehicles he observed on Route 77 were the pick-up truck and his transport
Officer Sindoni indicated that the accident occurred in the northbound lane
just south of the intersection of Route 77 and Sumner Road. Two photographs
were marked by this witness, Exhibits 1 and 3, indicating where he believed the
vehicles hit one another. Officer Sindoni testified at trial that he did not
cross double solid yellow lines to make a pass, that in fact, it was a broken
yellow line where he was driving.
After impact, he stated that he pulled over to the shoulder of the northbound
lane, but shortly after, “moved a ways, but not far” to the
southbound shoulder of the road. Officer Sindoni testified he drove across the
road, parked and stayed there. He did not leave his bus and he did not have any
contact with Mr. Pinelli. He later spoke with the State Police and he had a
brief discussion with a Genesee County Sheriff’s Deputy while he
transferred inmates to another bus.
DOCS issued a Notice of Discipline to Officer Sindoni for his conduct in this
matter. That document is contained within Exhibit 12 and states
I note that neither Officer Sindoni, nor Officer Hynes, who was traveling with
the inmates, reported the presence of a third vehicle (Exhibit 12). The
partially executed police report’s diagram of the accident contained in
Exhibit 12, at first glance, could be construed to show a total of three
vehicles involved in the accident. The disciplinary process ended when the
parties settled with no admission of misconduct.
I have previously determined, in cross-summary judgment motions, that Defendant
is bound by the reckless disregard standard in Vehicle and Traffic Law §
1104 (Christopher v State of New York, Ct Cl, July 11, 2008 [Claim No.
108185, Motion Nos. M-74989, CM-75067], Minarik, J., UID No. 2008-031-036).
“This standard demands more than a showing of a lack of ‘due care
under the circumstances’ – the showing typically associated with
ordinary negligence claims. It requires evidence that ‘the actor has
intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known
or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probably that harm would
follow’ and has done so with conscious indifference to the outcome
(Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 34, at 213 [5th ed.]; see, Restatement
[Second] of Torts § 500)” (Saarinen v Kerr, 84 NY2d 494, 501).
Claimant must show more than a momentary lapse of judgment for liability to
attach (Szczerbiak v Pilat, 90 NY2d 553, 556).
Essentially, I have four witnesses with knowledge, or partial knowledge, of how
this accident happened and I have three explanations for how the accident
occurred. Deputy Richardson’s version had Officer Sindoni’s vehicle
crossing over solid double yellow lines just north of the intersection, into the
northbound lane, to overtake a tractor-trailer immediately in front of him and,
eventually, the Pinelli vehicle. He surmised that the Pinelli vehicle was
making a left turn onto Sumner Road when the bus reached the intersection and
the impact occurred. Both drivers drove through the intersection and came to a
stop; the Pinelli vehicle facing east on Sumner Road and the bus facing south on
Route 77. Deputy Richardson was not an eyewitness to this accident and did not
officially reconstruct the accident.
Mr. Pinelli’s version of the accident also had it occurring at the
intersection. He stated he was stopped at the north end of the intersection to
wait for a car traveling north to turn right on Sumner Road. When he went to
make his turn after the car went through the intersection, he hit the bus. He
was generally aware that there were vehicles behind him.
Officer Sindoni’s version has the accident taking place south of the
intersection as he insists he did not pull out of the southbound lane to pass
until he had the broken yellow line. He testified he did not see any other
Somewhere in these three accounts is the truth. Deputy Richardson’s
testimony was helpful to the extent that he placed the Pinelli vehicle on Sumner
Road facing east on the southern shoulder after the accident. He placed the
DOCS van facing south on the western shoulder, south of the intersection.
Deputy Richardson surmised that the accident occurred at the intersection. This
is corroborated by Mr. Pinelli. Frankly, I found Officer Sindoni’s
testimony that the impact occurred south of the intersection incredible.
Officer Sindoni believed that the slow-moving Pinelli vehicle created a hazard,
for example, an opportunity for inmates to escape. He came to that conclusion
based on his training as a correction officer. Therefore, he made a conscious
decision to remove his vehicle from the situation and pass Mr. Pinelli’s
vehicle. At trial, he was careful to point out that he started to pass Mr.
Pinelli’s vehicle when he had the broken yellow line, just south of the
intersection. He stated he did not observe any indication that Mr. Pinelli was
slowing down to make a left-hand turn onto Sumner Road. Deputy Richardson gave
Officer Sindoni a break by not ticketing him for unsafe driving. The vagueness
of the post-accident investigation inured to Officer Sindoni’s benefit
during his disciplinary process.
The location of the damage to both vehicles leads me to conclude that the left
front end of Mr. Pinelli’s truck hit the right side front end of the DOCS
van, and the only reasonable way this could have happened was that Mr. Pinelli
was making a left-hand turn. I find that Officer Sindoni crossed a double solid
yellow line north of the intersection at a rate of speed high enough to cause
the DOCS van to “tip” at impact. I believe he was aware that
passing Mr. Pinelli’s vehicle was a hazardous move, otherwise the broken
yellow line would not have been an important part of his decision-making process
and his trial testimony. My problem with Officer Sindoni’s decision to
pass Mr. Pinelli’s vehicle was his proximity to an at-grade intersection
and the double solid yellow line indicating it was unsafe to pass. Under the
circumstances, his actions rise to the level of reckless disregard, showing more
than a momentary lapse of judgment.
I find that the issue of reckless disregard is resolved in favor of Claimant.
Judgment is hereby granted in favor of Claimant, establishing that Defendant
State of New York is 100% at fault for causing the accident. A trial shall be
set as soon as practicable on the issues of serious injury and Claimant’s
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.