While multi-car, rush hour accidents tend to make big news, most automobile accidents only involve a single vehicle, often times on quiet roads where there are no witnesses around. Such accidents can be difficult to reconstruct, especially when the driver suffers serious injuries and, as a result, has no memory of what happened. A recent decision by the Appellate Division, Third Department, illustrates the uphill battle such plaintiffs face when trying to recover damages in a negligence lawsuit.
Lindquist v. County of Schoharie
This case involves a single-car accident which occurred in Schoharie County in upstate New York. A woman was driving along a curved road when, for reasons never clearly established, her vehicle went off the road, over an embankment and struck a tree. The driver suffered a serious brain injury as a result of the accident. She did not, however, have any recollection of the accident or what caused her vehicle to go off the road. The only other persons present at the time of the accident where the driver's two children, who were passengers and also had no recollection of what happened.
The driver sued Schoharie County for “negligent construction” of the road where the accident occurred. An expert hired by the driver surveyed the site and concluded the county's posted speed limit was too high for the road in question, the road lacked a guide rail to protect vehicles, and the shoulder or “clear zone” was not wide enough. All of these factors, the expert testified, “were a substantial factor in causing the accident and/or aggravating the severity of plaintiff's injuries.”
But the courts didn't see it that way. Both the Supreme Court and the Third Department agreed the county was entitled to summary judgment. Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, writing for the Third Department, said the expert's report was not enough to establish the county's negligence as the “proximate cause” of the plaintiff's accident or injuries. The expert, in fact, offered little more than speculation, which Judge Garry said was not enough to survive a motion for summary judgment.
Compounding the plaintiff's difficulties was the fact she had no memory of the accident. As Judge Garry noted, “Plaintiff's amnesia as to the cause of the accident does not excuse her from submitting prima facie proof of proximate cause.” While there are some cases where a plaintiff suffering from amnesia may be held to a lower standard of proof, this was not one of these cases, according to Judge Garry, and in any event, there still has to be some proof beyond mere speculation.
Are Unsafe Road Conditions to Blame For Your Accident?
All cities and counties in New York have a legal duty to keep their roads “in a reasonably safe condition.” But a plaintiff may not recover damages against a municipality unless its failure to meet this duty is proven to be the “proximate cause” of a subsequent accident. That is why, if you have been in an accident and believe unsafe road conditions were to blame, it is imperative you work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can help you reconstruct what took place. Contact our office today to speak with a lawyer right away.