They say, “You can't fight city hall.” When it comes to bringing a negligence or other personal injury claim against a local government, that is not always true. But it is certainly more difficult to hold a state or local government liable, as a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Second Department, illustrates.
Johnson v. Braun
This case arose from a single-car accident that took place in the Suffolk County town of East Hampton in 2010. The driver lost control of her vehicle and struck a tree, injuring her passenger. The passenger then sued the driver for negligence. He also sued the Town of East Hampton, arguing improper maintenance of the road—specifically, a faulty asphalt patch—created a “dangerous condition” that also contributed to the accident.
Suffolk County Supreme Court denied East Hampton's motion for summary judgment. But on August 27 of this year, the Second Department reversed. The Second Department said East Hampton was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The reason for this is that in New York, a municipality may establish, by local ordinance, that it cannot be held liable for defective road conditions unless it receives prior written notice of the defect. Here, East Hampton had adopted such an ordinance. It states the town's clerk or superintendent of highways must personally receive “written notice” of a defective road condition and allow “reasonable time” for the town to correct the problem. This applies to structural defects like potholes as well as temporary hazards like black ice.
In this case, town officials testified they had no record of any written notice regarding any hazardous condition on the road where the single-car accident occurred. The Second Department said the plaintiff offered no evidence to contradict this; instead, he offered “speculation,” which was not enough to sustain his claim against East Hampton.
The Second Department did, however, agree with the trial court's decision to grant the plaintiff summary judgment against the driver. Under New York law, when the passenger of a vehicle in a single-car accident submits proof the driver lost control of her vehicle, the driver then has the burden of proving the accident was not her fault. Here, the driver testified she “skidded on black ice while driving too fast and weaving in and out of her lane of traffic.” This amounted to an admission of liability, the Second Department said, and therefore there was no triable issue of fact as to liability. The Second Department therefore returned the case to Suffolk County Supreme Court for additional proceedings to determine what damages the driver owes the plaintiff.
Never a Simple Matter
As this case demonstrates, even a single-car accident can raise a number of complicated questions related to liability. It is important to work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney who understands all aspects of the law in this area, especially if one of the potential defendants is a government agency. If you are a victim in even a simple automobile accident and require further advice on these matters, contact our office right away.