New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CHRISTOPHER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-031-520, Claim No. 108185


Synopsis


Claimant demonstrated reckless disregard of State employee who crossed double yellow line just before an intersection and collided with a car turning left. Defendant 100% liable for Claimant’s injuries.

Case Information

UID:
2008-031-520
Claimant(s):
STEVEN CHRISTOPHER
Claimant short name:
CHRISTOPHER
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
108185
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Claimant’s attorney:
CHRISTOPHER G. JOHNSON, ESQ.
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO
New York State Attorney General
BY: LAW OFFICES OF LAURIE G. OGDENBY: DAVID F. BOWEN, ESQ.
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
May 21, 2009
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

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 vehicles.

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 reconstruction training.

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 vehicle.

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 specifically:
“On September 20, 2001, at approximately 2:15 p.m. in the course of your duties driving, you failed to operate your motor vehicle in a safe manner. Specifically, while driving Vehicle #57, southbound on Route #77 in Darien, New York, you attempted to pass two vehicles in a no passing zone, causing an accident.”
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 traffic.

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 damages.

LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.


May 21, 2009
Rochester, New York

HON. RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Judge of the Court of Claims