New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

HAYES v. NEW YORK STATE, #2008-040-035, Claim No. 112085


Synopsis


Trial – bifurcated – Court finds auto accident caused by negligence of State employee. Liability only.

Case Information

UID:
2008-040-035
Claimant(s):
LAURA HAYES
Claimant short name:
HAYES
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
112085
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
CHRISTOPHER J. MCCARTHY
Claimant’s attorney:
FABER & TROY, ESQS.By: William M. Swift, Esq.
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBy: John L. Belford, IV, Esq., AAG
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
May 22, 2008
City:
Albany
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant, Laura Hayes, has established by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Defendant was negligent in connection with personal injuries she sustained in a May 18, 2005 motor vehicle accident with a State-owned vehicle. The accident occurred on the Long Island Expressway (“LIE”), in the westbound lanes between exits 58 and 57, in the Village of Islandia, Suffolk County, New York. A bifurcated trial, addressing liability issues only, was held on March 11, 2008 at the Court of Claims in Hauppauge. There were five witnesses: Claimant; Sarah E. Mateo, Defendant’s employee and the operator of the State’s vehicle; Cara Champa-Verruto, the driver of a third car involved in the accident; John Washburn, one of the Suffolk County Police Officers who responded to the accident; and Thomas Kehoe, a Sergeant with the New York State Office of Mental Health (“OMH”), who prepared a report based upon Ms. Mateo’s contemporaneous account of the accident

.
FACTS
The parties offer accounts of the accident that contradict each other on important points. “[T]he Court, as fact finder, must weigh the evidence presented after assessing witness credibility and resolving factual disputes” (Rice v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 107632, dated June 19, 2006, Hard, J. [UID No. 2006-032-505]; see Burton v State of New York, 283 AD2d 875, 877 [3d Dept 2001]). Upon consideration of all the evidence, including a review of the exhibits and listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court makes its findings of facts.

The parties agree on this much. The accident occurred on a work day, during the morning drive-time commute. It occurred in the third of four westbound lanes (counting from right to left) on the LIE. Immediately to the left of the lane where the accident occurred was the specially designated high occupancy vehicle (“HOV”) lane and, beyond that, the road shoulder and then a physical barrier that separated the westbound lanes from the opposing eastbound lanes. The accident occurred completely within the third lane. They agreed that the drivers of the three cars stopped and got out of their vehicles. Suffolk County Police responded to the accident scene shortly after the accident occurred. At some point, an officer directed that the cars be pulled over to the far left and onto the shoulder of the LIE.

As for the contested points, the Court finds that the Claim arises from a three-car chain-reaction accident, at very low-speed and at very low-impact, that occurred in bumper-to-bumper traffic when Defendant’s vehicle bumped Claimant’s vehicle in the rear, and then Claimant’s car bumped the rear of the vehicle driven by Ms. Champa-Verruto.

There were three vehicles. The Court rejects Claimant’s testimony that she did not hit Ms. Champa-Verruto’s car. Claimant’s version of events is unpersuasive. She would have Ms. Champa-Verruto stopping to offer assistance solely out of concern for Claimant, even though Ms. Champa-Verruto’s vehicle was not hit, even though the accident took place behind her, and even though it was Claimant’s testimony (discussed below) that the rush hour traffic was slowing down, but still moving at 15-20 miles per hour (“mph”). By contrast, Ms. Champa-Verruto testified she had no doubt that her vehicle was hit in the rear. She felt a bump, called 911, and waited for the police to arrive.

Claimant’s credibility on this point is further impeached by the number of photographic exhibits she offered that depict the front of her car (see Exs. 2, 3, 5-6). Ms. Hayes testified that she was present when the photographs were taken by her lawyer, yet professed to have no idea why he took them since it was her testimony that the front of her car did not hit Ms. Champa-Verruto’s car. No explanation was provided as to why Claimant offered them in evidence. The Court does not find Claimant’s account to be credible and concludes that Claimant’s car hit Ms. Champa-Verruto’s vehicle.

At the same time, the Court is not persuaded by Ms. Mateo’s testimony concerning a fourth car that allegedly was the rearmost vehicle that precipitated the chain-reaction accident. Ms. Mateo testified that she was driving Defendant’s vehicle on a work-related errand when she was struck from behind by a vehicle and that impact propelled her car into Claimant’s car. Ms. Mateo did not see that fourth vehicle, but said she felt an impact. She testified that the fourth vehicle fled the scene after it hit her, without stopping. Yet, Ms. Mateo also testified that “traffic was at a standstill and then, [we moved] slowly, tapping at the brakes as we proceeded.” In fact, she could not recall if she was moving at all when the accident occurred.

Ms. Mateo also testified that she attempted to tell the police about the fourth vehicle, but that her statement was not taken. Officer Washburn testified that he did not witness the accident. He is the author, however, of Exhibits 11 (his tour notes), C (a field report), and E (the police accident report[1]). Officer Washburn testified that all three drivers reported to him their version of how the accident occurred. He further testified that he would have noted it if anyone had related the involvement of a fourth vehicle in the accident. The officer testified that the absence of such a notation in any of the three exhibits he wrote indicates that no one told him about a fourth vehicle.

Ms. Mateo testified that she reported the accident to OMH once she arrived at her destination (see Ex. D, which was admitted, not for the truth of the matters asserted therein, but solely to evidence that Ms. Mateo made such a report to Sergeant Kehoe).

The Court cannot credit Ms. Mateo’s testimony that an unseen fourth vehicle hit Defendant’s vehicle and then vanished, unobserved and undetected, into bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The above discussion also highlights conflicting testimony by the parties about traffic conditions and the speed at which the vehicles were traveling when the accident occurred.

Claimant testified that traffic was lighter than usual, though it was stop-and-go in places. At a point where traffic was more congested, she said she was “coasting[2]” to slow down, and her foot was not on the brake pedal, when her vehicle was hit in the rear twice by Defendant’s car. Claimant testified that she was traveling at something less than 30 miles per hour (“mph”) when she was hit the first time. Her car was jolted forward about a car length as a result of the impact. Claimant then said she was hit by Defendant a second time, less than three seconds later, while she was still traveling at 15-20 mph.

The Court rejects Claimant’s account. It is at odds with the testimony of the other witnesses/participants as well as the photographic exhibits. Ms. Mateo described traffic being heavy and at a standstill. Her testimony is corroborated by Ms. Champa-Verruto, who stated that traffic was stopped when the accident occurred in bumper-to-bumper conditions that she typically encountered at that hour near those exits of the LIE.

Ms. Mateo characterized the force of the impact between her vehicle and that of Claimant as “light to medium.” The photographic exhibits of both Claimant’s and Defendant’s vehicles, likewise, evidence a very low-impact event (see Exs. 1-10; A, B). Indeed, the minor smudges or abrasions depicted are barely perceptible to the Court. Claimant characterized them as “impact looking dots ... impression things.”

Officer Washburn testified that he wrote the police accident report a week and a half after the event (see Ex. E) because none of the drivers requested one at the time since there were no injuries and no damage to any of the vehicles. He testified that the field report he prepared at the time of the accident, likewise, indicated that there were no personal injuries and that he observed no damage, in excess of $1,000, to any vehicle (see Ex. C).

Ms. Champa-Verruto testified that there was minimal damage to her vehicle.

Thus, the Court finds utterly incredible Claimant’s testimony that two impacts, each at speeds at or in excess of 15 mph, resulted in such minimal damage to her vehicle.
LAW
To establish a prima facie case of negligence, Claimant must demonstrate by a preponderance of the credible evidence that: (1) Defendant owed her a duty of care; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) Defendant’s breach of that duty was a substantial factor in the events that caused her injury (see Derdiarian v Felix Contr. Co., 51 NY2d 308, 315 [1980]; Kampff v Ulster Sanitation, 280 AD2d 797 [3d Dept 2001]; Patrick v State of New York, 11 Misc 3d 296, 320 [Ct Cl 2005]; PJI 2:10, 2:70).

Drivers of motor vehicles have a duty to operate their automobiles with reasonable care in light of the actual and potential risks that may exist as a result of weather, road, traffic and other conditions. Such duty of care imposes upon drivers obligations to: maintain a safe rate of speed, keep their vehicle under reasonable control; be on a proper lookout under the conditions then prevailing to see and be aware of what is in their view; and use reasonable care to avoid accidents (National Interstate v A.J. Murphy Co., Inc., 9 AD3d 714, 716 [3d Dept 2004]; Woolley v Coppola, 179 AD2d 991, 992 [3d Dept 1992]; Oberman v Alexander’s Rent-A-Car, 56 AD2 814, 815 [1st Dept 1977]; lv denied 42 NY2d 806 [1977]; see PJI 2:77; Vehicle and Traffic Law [“VTL”] § 1129[a]). “The rule is that a driver must maintain a safe distance between his [or her] vehicle and the one in front of him [or her], and any rear-end collision establishes a prima facie case of negligence on the part of the rear-ending driver . . .Indeed, the rearmost driver in a chain-reaction collision bears a presumption of responsibility” (De La Cruz v Ock Wee Leong, 16 AD3d 199, 200 [1st Dept 2005]; see Macauley v Elrac, Inc., 6 AD3d 584, 585 [2d Dept 2004]; Mustafaj v Driscoll, 5 AD3d 138 [1st Dept 2004]; McNulty v DePetro, 298 AD2d 566 [2d Dept 2002]; PJI 2:82, 2:82A).

Upon such a showing, the burden shifts to Defendant to provide a non-negligent explanation for its actions (Pampris v Egnasher, 20 AD3d 746, 746-747 [3d Dept 2005]; Simpson v Eastman, 300 AD2d 647, 648 [2d Dept 2002]; Forbes v Plume, 202 AD2d 821, 822 [3d Dept 1994]). Conduct by Defendant that was reasonable under the circumstances may excuse a violation of statute (Arricale v Leo, 295 AD2d 920, 921 [4th Dept 2002]; Espinal v Sureau, 262 AD2d 523, 524 [2d Dept 1999]. Of course, it also may be evidence that the duty of reasonable care has not been breached.
DISCUSSION
The Court finds that Claimant has met her burden and established by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Defendant was negligent in connection with her accident. The Court determines that Claimant made out a prima facie case of negligence against the State since Defendant’s vehicle was the rearmost in a chain reaction accident. The Court finds, further, that Defendant failed to offer a sufficient explanation that would excuse that action. Ms. Mateo’s explanation was that an unseen fourth car was the actual rearmost vehicle that was responsible for the chain-reaction accident. While that would constitute a non-negligent explanation, if established (see Campanella v Moore, 266 AD2d 423 [2d Dept 1999]), for the reasons discussed above, Defendant’s assertion is rejected.

Ms. Mateo was obligated to operate her vehicle “in such a manner of control as was commensurate with the known dangers” (Tenczar v Milligan, 47 AD2d 773, 774 [3d Dept 1975], lv denied 36 NY2d 645 [1975]). The Court finds that she failed to do so. Stop-and-go movement is to be anticipated at toll lanes (see Mustafaj v Driscoll, 5 AD3d 138, supra). The Court determines that the same applies in bumper-to-bumper rush hour conditions. Weather was not a factor in the accident. Claimant’s uncontroverted testimony was that it was a beautiful, dry, sunny morning with good visibility.
CONCLUSION
The Court finds that Ms. Mateo owed Claimant a duty to operate Defendant’s vehicle with reasonable care under the circumstances, that duty was breached, and that breach of duty was the sole factor in the accident that resulted in Claimant’s injury. Claimant’s testimony was not credible in places. By a preponderance of the credible evidence that was presented, however, the Court finds Defendant 100% liable in connection with this very low-speed, very low-impact, three car chain-reaction accident.

All motions and cross-motions are denied as moot. All objections upon which the Court reserved determination during trial, and not otherwise addressed herein, are now overruled.

The Chief Clerk is directed to enter interlocutory judgment accordingly. Instructions concerning the creation of a discovery schedule and trial date on damages will be provided under separate cover.


May 22, 2008
Albany, New York

HON. CHRISTOPHER J. MCCARTHY
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]. At trial, Claimant objected to the introduction of that portion of the report under the caption “Accident Description/Officer’s Notes,” on hearsay grounds. The Court reserved and now sustains that objection. The exhibit is admitted in evidence with that portion redacted.
[2].All quotations are taken from the audiotape recording of the trial and/or the Court’s trial notes.