With winter approaching, New York drivers will face hazardous road conditions. While nobody can control the weather, state and local governments do have a responsibility to keep the roads clear and safe. When they fail to do so, the result is an increase in car accidents and potential legal liability for the state.
“Dangerous Condition” Leads to Fatal Accident
In January 2004, a man was driving on Route 81 in Syracuse. He later described the road conditions as “snowy, wet, and dark with a slippery road surface.” The man passed an SUV as both vehicles headed towards an elevated part of the road. In short succession, the man saw the SUV “slide and go out of control” before heading up a snowbank and “vaulting” straight off the bridge. The man called 911 but it was too late for the SUV driver, who was declared dead on the scene by emergency medical personnel.
The victim's family later sued the state, arguing government snow plow workers created a dangerous condition when they piled the snowbank against the bridge's concrete barrier, thereby rendering it ineffective and enabling the deceased's vehicle to “vault” off the roadway. The New York Court of Claims, which hears personal injury claims against the state, initially dismissed the lawsuit, but in January 2012, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department,reversed, holding that the state “was negligent in creating the dangerous condition by its snow plowing methods.”
On remand to the Court of Claims, the state argued that the victim was partially responsible for the accident, thereby mitigating the state's liability under the law of comparative negligence. The court rejected this claim and ruled the state was “100 percent liable” for the victim's death. The judge entered afinal judgment and damage award of $14.8 million against the state.
This time the stateappealed to the Fourth Department, challenging the trial court's findings of no comparative negligence and its calculation of damages. With respect to the former, the Fourth Department found that “the evidence supports the [Court of Claims'] finding that, even if the decedent was negligent in the operation of his vehicle, such negligence would not have resulted in the vehicle leaving the roadway.” Again, the appeals court emphasized that it was the state's negligence in plowing the roadway that caused the victim's death.
As for damages, the Fourth Department determined part of the Court of Claims' award was excessive, at least with respect to the victim's two children. The Court of Claims awarded a total of $4.2 million to the children for past and future “loss of parental care, guidance, and nurturing.” The Fourth Department said this figure “deviates materially from what would be considered reasonable compensation and therefore must be set aside.” Accordingly, the appeals court limited this part of the damage award to $2.9 million.
Need Legal Help Following a Car Accident?Tragic cases like this illustrate the importance of working with an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Accident cases, especially those against the state, are often complex affairs requiring several years of litigation. If you need help following a car accident, contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, today.