Hunt v. State, 2021-51277

CourtNew York Court of Claims
Writing for the CourtFRANK P. MILANO, JUDGE
Decision Date10 December 2021
PartiesDale H. Hunt and Rhoda E. Hunt, Claimants, v. The State of New York, Defendant.
Docket Number2021-51277,Claim 131875

Dale H. Hunt and Rhoda E. Hunt, Claimants,
v.

The State of New York, Defendant.

No. 2021-51277

Claim No. 131875

Court of Claims

December 10, 2021


Unpublished Opinion

For Claimants: MARTIN, HARDING & MAZZOTTI, LLP By: Peter J. Hickey, Esq.

For Defendant: HON. LETITIA JAMES New York State Attorney General By: Glenn King, Esq. Assistant Attorney General

FRANK P. MILANO, JUDGE

Dale H. Hunt and Rhoda E. Hunt (claimants) were badly injured on August 13, 2017 when the three-wheel motorcycle they were riding was struck by a Jeep Liberty operated by Lynn Ohlsten. The collision occurred within the intersection of State Route (SR) 374 and County Route (CR) 24, in the Town of Bellmont, County of Franklin, State of New York.

The claimants were traveling south on SR 374, facing an overhead flashing yellow signal at the intersection. Ms. Ohlsten was traveling east on CR 24, and as she approached the intersection, she was facing a STOP line on the pavement, a roadside STOP sign, an overhead STOP sign at the intersection and an overhead flashing red signal at the intersection. The two vehicles collided within the intersection.

Claimants allege that defendant was negligent in twenty-three respects, separately articulated in paragraphs 7(a) through 7(w) of the claim. The following allegations of negligence in the claim are an illustrative sample and distillation of the gravamen of the claim:

1. Paragraph 7(c) asserts: "In permitting such a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist for the use of the motorists who were lawfully driving on the public roadways at the intersection of County Route 24, also known as Brainardsville Road, and State Route 374 in the Town of Bellmont, County of Franklin and State of New York;"

2. Paragraph 7(e) asserts: "In failing to keep and maintain the public roadway in a reasonably safe and proper condition at the intersection of County Route 24, also known as Brainardsville Road, and State Route 374 in the Town of Bellmont, County of Franklin and State of New York;"

3. Paragraph 7(h) asserts: "In improperly constructing, designing, maintaining, repairing and/or inspecting the public roadway at the intersection of County Route 24, also known as Brainardsville Road, and State Route 374 in the Town of Bellmont, County of Franklin and State of New York;"

4. Paragraph 7(i) asserts: "In creating the above-described subject dangerous, defective and hazardous condition;"

5. Paragraph 7(l) asserts: "In allowing a dangerous, hazardous, defective and/or unsafe condition to exist at the intersection of County Route 24, also known as Brainardsville Road, and State Route 374 in the Town of Bellmont, County of Franklin and State of New York;"

6. Paragraph 7(m) asserts: "In causing, permitting and allowing the subject intersection to become and remain in a dangerous, hazardous, defective and/or unsafe condition;" and, 7. Paragraph 7(r) asserts: "Failing to alleviate and/or remedy the dangerous, hazardous, defective and/or unsafe condition of the intersection where this incident occurred despite constructive notice of same."

Defendant's posture is that claimant failed to prove at trial that the intersection constituted a dangerous condition by reason of its design and also failed to prove that any actions or inaction of defendant (e.g. failure to further control the intersection) were negligent. Additionally, defendant maintains that motorist Lynn Ohlsten is entirely responsible for the accident and for the injuries sustained by claimants.

The State of New York has a nondelegable duty to properly design, construct and maintain its roadways in a condition which is reasonably safe for those who use them (Friedman v State of New York, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283 [1986]). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its roadways and the mere happening of an accident does not render the State liable (Tomassi v Town of Union, 46 N.Y.2d 91, 97 [1978]). Claimant must prove negligence on the part of a defendant and that the negligence was a proximate cause in producing the accident (Bernstein v City of New York, 69 N.Y.2d 1020, 1021-1022 [1987]). In general, liability will not attach unless the State had either actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition and then failed to take reasonable measures to correct the condition (Rinaldi v State of New York, 49 A.D.2d 361, 363 [3d Dept 1975]; Brooks v New York State Thruway Auth., 73 A.D.2d 767 [3d Dept 1979], affd 51 N.Y.2d 892 [1980]).

A recent Court of Appeals decision involving a right-angle motorcycle/pickup truck accident at a four-way intersection, Brown v State of New York (31 N.Y.3d 514, 519-520 [2018]), is instructive:

"The State has a nondelegable duty to keep its roads reasonably safe (Friedman v State of New York, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283 [1986]), and the State breaches that duty "when [it] is made aware of a dangerous highway condition and does not take action to remedy it" (id. at 286). A breach proximately causes harm if it is a substantial factor in the plaintiff's injury (Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 483)
We first address whether the Appellate Division's standard for proximate cause was correct-i.e., what did Ms Brown have to prove? The Appellate Division properly characterized the inquiry: "whether the dangerous condition of the intersection because of the vertical curve in the line of sight looking south from Paddy Lane, combined with the speed limit of 55 miles per hour and the absence of four-way stop signs at the intersection, may be deemed a proximate cause of the accident" (79 A.D.3d at 1584-1585 [internal quotation marks omitted]). The Court thus held that Ms. Brown was required to show "that the absence of safety measures contributed to the happening of the accident by materially increasing the risk, or by greatly increasing the probability of its occurrence" (id. at 1585 [internal quotation marks omitted])
We have never required accident victims to identify a specific remedy and prove it would have been timely implemented and preventedthe accident...
Here, there is record support for the finding that the State's breach was a proximate cause of the accident. It is undisputed that there was a pattern of right-angle accidents at the intersection. It is also undisputed that the State did not complete the traffic study, reduce the speed limit on Route 350, change the design or signage, or take any steps whatsoever to attempt to improve safety at the intersection. The other affirmed findings of fact-that the vertical curve created visibility problems; that Mr. Friend stopped and looked both ways; that Mr. Friend was unable to see the motorcycle approaching; that no one was speeding-are beyond our review.
Once on notice of the dangerous condition, it was the State's burden to take reasonable steps in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, it did nothing. That right-angle collisions would continue to occur absent the adoption of some safety measure is hardly surprising. "[T]he most significant inquiry in the proximate cause analysis is often that of foreseeability" (Hain v Jamison, 28 N.Y.3d 524, 530[2016]). Where, as here, the risk of harm created by the defendant corresponds to the harm that actually resulted, we cannot say that proximate cause is lacking as a matter of law."

Trial of the claim was conducted virtually from May 3, 2021 to May 5, 2021. Claimants called themselves as witnesses, as well as Ms. Ohlsten, Town of Bellmont Supervisor H. Bruce Russell, New York State Department of Transportation employee Rob Haynes, their expert Ronald Bova, retired New York State Department of Transportation employee Robert Curtis and New York State Department of Transportation employee Kenneth Bibbins. Defendant called David Werner, then chairman of the Franklin County Traffic Safety Board, Sharon Raymond, who witnessed the accident, retired New York State Department of Transportation employee David Woodin as its expert and State Police Collision Reconstruction Unit member Anthony Bissonette, who field-examined the accident scene the afternoon of the accident, as its witnesses.

Each claimant's trial testimony was brief and limited. Rhoda Hunt was a passenger on the Hunt motorcycle. She testified that as the motorcycle entered the intersection, she observed a car coming at the motorcycle and that her husband Dale attempted to swerve the motorcycle to the left, but that the "front" of the car struck the right, back portion of the motorcycle. Motorcycle driver Dale Hunt had no recollection of the accident at all. Each claimant testified that the day of August 13, 2017 was sunny and that the roadways were dry, facts confirmed by other trial evidence.

Just prior to the accident, Lynn Ohlsten was driving a 2012 Jeep Liberty east on CR 24 approaching its intersection with SR 374. Her intention was to proceed through the intersection and to cross over SR 374. To her left was southbound traffic on SR 374, the road on which claimants were traveling. The day was dry and sunny. To Ms. Ohlsten's immediate left, the sight line by which to view SR 374 southbound traffic, a white building with an attached deck stood at the northwest corner of the intersection. To any motorist (including Ms. Ohlsten) traveling east on CR 24 approaching the intersection, the building with its attached deck and railings impeded an unobstructed view of southbound SR 374 traffic. Further impeding a motorist's unobstructed view was a telephone pole, also on the intersection's northwest corner. These circumstances are well shown in photographic Exhibits 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

At trial, Ms. Ohlsten testified she slowed her vehicle approaching the intersection, looked to her left and observed the white building. Facing an obstructed view of SR 374 southbound traffic, she moved her car forward from the pavement stop line on CR 24. Unsure if she...

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