Not every motor vehicle accident is caused by the act of a driver. Dangerous road conditions may also lead to fatal injuries, and the persons responsible for creating such hazards may be held responsible. However, New York law requires proof the alleged hazard was a “proximate” cause of the victim's injuries, not that it merely created an environment that may have contributed to the accident.
Hain v. Jamison
Here is a recent example of how New York courts apply these principles. This case arises from an unusual and tragic accident in upstate New York. A woman driving in Steuben County observed a newborn calf wandering down the road. The calf had escaped from a nearby farm. The woman exited her vehicle to assist the calf, and while standing in the road another vehicle struck and killed her.
The deceased woman's widower sued not only the driver and owner of the vehicle that killed his wife, but also the owner of the farm where the calf escaped. The widower argued the farm “was negligent in allowing the calf to escape from its farm, and that such negligence was a proximate cause of [his wife's] death.” The farm argued even if it was negligent in allowing the calf to escape, that did not cause the accident or the woman's death.
Steuben County Supreme Court denied the farm's motion for summary judgment. But a divided panel of the the Appellate Division, Fourth Department reversed and dismissed all claims against the farm. The majority held the widower failed to present any evidence “the calf's presence in the road blocked decedent's ability to travel in the southbound lane or otherwise forced decedent to stop her vehicle.” In other words, while the wandering calf may have prompted the woman to exit her car and render assistance, the calf's mere presence did not force her to do so. Therefore, the majority said, the farm's alleged negligence in letting the calf escape could not be the “proximate” cause of her death.
One judge disagreed. Associate Justice Gerald J. Whalen said he would have returned the case to the Supreme Court for further proceedings. He noted the farm had a legal duty to “keep its livestock out of the roadway,” and it was “reasonably foreseeable” its failure to do so would lead to an accident. Justice Whalen further disagreed with the majority's view the calf's presence in the road did not pose an obstacle to the deceased woman: “It is impossible to determine from the evidence in the record whether the calf was on the shoulder of the road or in the travel lane, and thus it is equally impossible to determine whether the calf's presence placed decedent in a position of danger.” And in any event, Justice Whalen argued, the burden at this stage of the case should be on the farm to prove its negligence did not cause the accident.
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The divided opinion in the case above illustrates how many personal injury lawsuits are close calls in the courts. That is why if you or a loved one is the victim in a motor vehicle accident, it is essential you work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Contact our offices today if you would like to speak with an attorney right away.