We tend to look at motor vehicle accidents in terms of injuries to people. But negligent drivers can cause substantial damage to property as well. And even in cases where the driver's negligence seems obvious, New York courts still require a certain degree of proof before assessing liability.
Shaw v. Rosha Enterprises, Inc.
Here is a recent example from an ongoing lawsuit from upstate New York. The facts seem simple enough: A tractor-trailer collided with a skating rink in the Town of Genesee. The collision started a fire, which caused enough damage to require the building's demolition.
The skating rink owners sued the company that owned the tractor-trailer. The plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment on the question of the defendant's liability. The defendant, in turn, asked for partial summary judgment limiting its potential damages. Specifically, the defendant objected to the plaintiffs' demand for reimbursements of the costs to demolish their building.
Allegany Supreme Court Justice Thomas P. Brown granted the plaintiff's motion—holding the defendant was negligent as a matter of law—and denied the defendant's motion to limit potential damages. Both sides appealed. In a June 19 decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, said Brown was wrong to grant the plaintiff's motion, but agreed he was right to deny the defendant's motion.
Regarding the defendant's liability for the accident, the Fourth Department held although it was “undisputed” the defendant's vehicle hit the plaintiff's building, the plaintiff still “failed to meet their initial burden of establishing as a matter of law that the collision was caused by the negligence of defendant's employee.” While it may seem like common sense the driver must have been negligent if he managed to hit a building, the plaintiff still had to prove it.
In their summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs' only supporting evidence was an accident report prepared by a local police officer. An accident report may record the facts surrounding an accident, but it is generally not enough to establish the cause of an accident. The police officer who prepared the report did not personally witness the accident, and unless he was an expert in accident reconstruction—which he apparently was not—the Fourth Department said the report, standing alone, was not admissible evidence of the defendant's negligence.
But, assuming the plaintiffs ultimately prove the defendant's negligence at trial, the Fourth Department said they were entitled to recover the costs of demolishing their skating rink. Under New York law, a defendant's liability for property damage is “the lesser of replacement cost or diminution in market value.” Here, the defendant argued its liability should be limited to the market value of the skating rink before the accident, as that is less than the replacement cost. But the Fourth Department disagreed and said the plaintiffs could seek the demolition costs of the property—which exceeds the former market value—as the demolition was necessary as a matter of public safety.
Simple Cases, Complex Law
As this case illustrates, even seemingly simple cases can raise complex legal questions. That is why it is essential to work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney when trying to recover damages arising from a motor vehicle accident. Contact our offices today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.