Judge Finds Driver at Fault for Driving Into Ditch

Drivers need to be aware of potentially hazardous road conditions. New York law imposes a duty on all motorists to “see what is there to be seen through the proper use of his or her senses.” This means the courts may reject a personal injury lawsuit arising from a driver's failure to navigate an obvious hazard.

Cox v. McCormick Farms, Inc.

Here is a recent example from upstate New York. This case involves a single-vehicle accident that occurred in 2012. A tractor trailer driver was delivering hay bales to a dairy farm in the village of Arcade, New York. The driver turned off the road onto the farm's driveway, and the rear wheels of his trailer got caught in a four-foot drainage ditch. The vehicle then rolled over onto its side.

The driver sued the owner and operator of the farm, claiming he suffered serious injuries as a result of negligence. Specifically, the driver said he failed to notice the ditch because it had snowed the previous night and the farm failed to properly plow their driveway or place markers to indicate there was a ditch. The defendants replied it was the driver's own “reckless driving” that caused his accident.

Wyoming County Supreme Court sided with the defendants. In an April 14 decision, Judge Michael M. Mohun granted the farm's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the driver's complaint. Judge Mohun said while a jury would normally decide whether the defendants were negligent, in this particular case, “there is no dispute about the fact that the truck overturned due to the failure of [the driver] to negotiate the turn into the driveway.” Furthermore, the driver failed to present any credible evidence the farm's negligence contributed in any way to his accident.

Judge Mohun credited the testimony of an accident reconstruction expert hired by the defendants. The expert said, “the ability to negotiate turns is a basic competence for any truck driver, and the duty to operate the truck safely includes the duty to see that the rear wheels do not leave the driving surface during turns.” The expert rejected the driver's claim the farm should have posted markers around the ditch. Given the size of the ditch—seven feet wide and four feet deep—the expert said any “normal driver” should have seen it.

As for the snow the previous evening, Judge Mohun said testimony from farm employees established there was only an inch or two on the ground on the morning of the accident. The ditch itself was free of snow, and in any event, it was the responsibility of Wyoming County, not the farm. And at the time of the accident, the weather was clear and sunny. Added together, Judge Mohun found there was no reason to believe the farm was negligent in maintaining its property.

Even though this driver's lawsuit was unsuccessful, there are cases where a property owner's negligence may be a factor in a motor vehicle accident. If you have been injured in such an accident and require legal advice from an experienced New York personal injury attorney, contact our offices today.