Each year thousands of people are injured while crossing the street. Pedestrian accidents are often the result of negligent drivers who fail to keep their eyes on the road. But pedestrians share legal responsibility for road safety. A pedestrian cannot simply dart into traffic without looking and then claim a reckless driver hit them. This is why New York law allows for a finding of comparative negligence on the part of a plaintiff. This means, for example, if a jury decides a pedestrian was 25% responsible for the accident, any subsequent damage award against the defendant will be reduced by that same 25%.
Court of Appeals Leaves Open Question of Liability in Accident
The New York Court of Appeals recently addressed the issue of pedestrian comparative negligence in an ongoing personal injury lawsuit from Suffolk County. The accident occurred in the Town of Islip on Montauk Highway. The plaintiff was walking across an intersection when she was struck by the defendant’s vehicle.
Before Suffolk County Supreme Court, the plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the question of liability. She maintained the defendant was responsible for the accident as a matter of law. The defendant also moved for summary judgment, alleging it was the plaintiff who caused the accident by failing to exercise proper care while crossing the highway.
The Supreme Court denied both summary judgment motions. But on appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed and entered summary judgment for the plaintiff. A majority of the appeals panel held that based on the evidence presented, the plaintiff “looked in both directions before crossing” the highway and “she had almost completed her crossing when she was struck by the defendant’s vehicle, which originated its approach from behind her while making a turn.” The majority said this clearly established the defendant was 100% responsible for the accident.
One judge dissented. He argued the majority had misconstrued both the facts and the law in this case. He said the majority’s theory that the defendant’s vehicle struck the plaintiff from behind was a “physical impossibility” based on photographs of the accident scene. More importantly, the plaintiff did not exercise proper care in crossing the street. She testified at a deposition that “as she crossed the lanes of travel, she failed to look to her sides and instead looked only ahead of her.” Under New York law, a pedestrian’s “duty of care,” even when she has the right of way, “does not end when she leaves the curb but, instead, a continuing one.” In other words, the plaintiff may be partly at fault for the accident if she failed to look both ways while crossing the street, not just before she left the curb.
The Second Department asked the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, to review its decision. On May 5, the Court of Appeals issued a two-sentence order reversing the Second Department—in effect, endorsing the dissenting judge’s reasoning—and returned the case to the Supreme Court for trial on the issue of liability.