Intersection Collisions- Interplay of Legal Principals and StatutesIntersection Collisions- Interplay of Legal Principals and Statutes
By Robert S. Kelner and Gail S. Kelner
Intersection collisions are among the most commonly litigated types of motor vehicle accidents. Underlying all of these cases is a motorist’s responsibility to see that which is there to be seen. It is fundamental decisional and statutory law that every driver is under a duty to obey the rules of the road; to keep his automobile under reasonable and proper control continuously; to keep a proper lookout under the circumstances then existing, taking into account the actual and potential dangers existing from weather, road, traffic and other conditions; to see and be aware of what is in his view; to use reasonable care and to avoid colliding with other vehicles. There are statutory mandates in the Vehicle and Traffic Law which must be followed.
Many actions arising out of motor vehicle collisions raise triable issues of fact for a jury. However, where there is an undisputed violation of a provision of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, imposing negligence as a matter of law on one of the parties, and an absence of any evidence of comparative negligence by the other driver, a summary judgment motion may be appropriate. In this column, we will examine some of the factors to be evaluated in determining whether a summary judgment motion may succeed. There does seem to be a relatively recent judicial trend of granting summary judgment in fact patterns where the courts traditionally found only questions of fact.
Left-Hand Turn Cases
Intersection collisions involving improper left-hand turns are within the purview of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1141, which provides that a vehicle making a left-hand turn must yield to an approaching vehicle:
The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection or into an alley, private road, or driveway shall yield the right of way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.
A violation of this statute may be deemed negligence as a matter of law and dispositive of liability if there is no evidence of comparative negligence. Frequently, in such cases, the negligent driver may have also unwittingly assisted in the case against him or her by admitting a failure to see the other vehicle.
A common defense raised by the operator of the vehicle making a negligent left-hand turn is a claim that the other vehicle was speeding in violation of Vehicle & Traffic Law § 1180, which provides that a driver is obligated to operate his or her vehicle at a reasonable speed:
(a) No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.
However, a mere unsubstantiated allegation of excessive speed is not sufficient to raise issues of comparative negligence.
There have been a number of recent decisions granting summary judgment on the issue of liability for negligent left hand turns by both plaintiffs and defendants. In Rieman v. Smith,302 A.D.2d 510, 755 N.Y.S.2d 256 (2nd Dept. 2003), one of the recent cases in which summary judgment was granted for a statutory left-hand turn violation, defendant contended that plaintiff’s vehicle rolled through a stop sign and then made a sharp left turn in front of defendant’s vehicle which then struck him. Plaintiff claimed that he stopped at the stop sign and looked both ways before turning left. Fatally, he admitted that he never saw the vehicle which hit him. The court held that plaintiff violated Vehicle and Traffic Law §1141 by making a left-hand turn directly into defendant’s path as defendant proceeded legally with the right of way and dismissed the complaint as a matter of law. Plaintiff’s speculative assertions concerning defendant’s speed were unsupported by the evidence and did not raise a triable issue of fact. Clearly, plaintiff’s admission that he did not see defendant’s vehicle was a significant factor in establishing plaintiff’s negligence.
In Berner v. Koegel, 31 A.D.3d 591, 819 N.Y.S.2d 89 (2nd Dept. 2006), defendant was traveling southbound and made a left hand turn across the northbound lanes of travel directly into plaintiff’s path as plaintiff proceeded into the intersection with the right of way. Defendant testified that she never saw plaintiff’s vehicle even though she had an unobstructed view of the oncoming traffic. Plaintiff demonstrated her prima facie entitlement to summary judgment by establishing that defendant violated Vehicle and Traffic Law§ 1141 in making the turn into plaintiff’s path. Defendant was further negligent in her admitted failure to see the other vehicle. The court stated:”A driver is negligent if he or she has failed to see that which, through the proper use of senses, should have been seen.” Allegations that plaintiff was negligent in failing to sound her horn or avoid the collision were unsupported. The court held:
“As the plaintiff had the right-of-way, she was entitled to anticipate that the defendant would obey the traffic laws which required the defendant to yield to the plaintiff’s vehicle...”
In Gabler v. Marly Bldg. Supply Corp., 27 A.D.3d 519, 813 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2nd Dept. 2006), the traffic lights at the intersection were green for both plaintiff and defendant as they approached from opposite directions. The lights remained green until the accident occurred. Defendant testified that he first saw the plaintiff's vehicle about three seconds before the accident as it was proceeding toward him. According to his testimony, plaintiff turned left in front of him one second before the accident occurred. Plaintiff testified that he never saw the defendants' vehicle prior to beginning his left turn or at any time prior to the accident and that he had stopped at the intersection for two to three seconds before beginning his left turn, where he had an unobstructed view of the roadway for approximately 100 feet. The court held that defendant demonstrated his prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law for establishing plaintiff’s violation of §1141. Defendant driver was entitled to anticipate that the plaintiff would obey the traffic laws which required him to yield to the defendants' vehicle. As in Berner, it was significant that plaintiff admitted he never saw the defendants' vehicle prior to making his left turn. The court in Gabler similarly observed that plaintiff was negligent as a matter of law in failing to see that which he should have seen through the proper use of his senses. Plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact in response to the motion.
In King v. Washburn, 273 A.D.2d 725, 710 N.Y.S.2d 185(3rd Dept. 2000), plaintiff own testimony was fatal to his motion for summary judgment. Defendant made a left hand turn in front of plaintiff’s vehicle even though his view was obstructed by parked cars. He stated that plaintiff was traveling too fast for existing slippery road conditions Plaintiff testified that he saw defendant’s vehicle but could not stop. He started to slide and was still sliding at the time of impact. He admitted that he was traveling at 20-25 miles per hour and that defendant’s vehicle was approximately 40 feet away when he began to apply his brakes. Although the defendant was plainly negligent, the court held that there were triable issues of fact as to plaintiff’s own culpable conduct including whether his speed was appropriate given the undisputed evidence of the adverse road conditions under VTL §1180(e). This section provides in pertinent part:
e) The driver of every vehicle shall, consistent with the requirements of subdivision (a) of this section, drive at an appropriate reduced speed when approaching and crossing an intersection or railway grade crossing, when approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest,... when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, and when any special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians, or other traffic by reason of weather or highway conditions, including, but not limited to a highway construction or maintenance work area.
Failures to Observe Traffic Controls
The disregard of a stop sign or red light at an intersection, as well as the failure to yield the right-of-way after stopping at a traffic control, have also been increasingly the subject of summary judgment motions. Vehicle and Traffic Law §1142 provides in pertinent part:
(a) Except when directed to proceed by a police officer, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop as required by section eleven hundred seventy-two and after having stopped shall yield the right of way to any vehicle which has entered the intersection from another highway or which is approaching so closely on said highway as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time when such driver is moving across or within the intersection.
The courts have repeatedly held that a motorist’s obligation under §1142 is not satisfied by merely making a full stop. The motorist is also required to yield to oncoming traffic. In McNamara v. Fishkowitz, 18 A.D.3d 721, 795 N.Y.S.2d 714 (2nd Dept. 2005), the court held that, regardless of whether the driver of the vehicle actually stopped at the stop sign, he was negligent in failing to yield the right-of-way to a motorcyclist approaching the intersection. The motorist testified that he stopped at the stop sign and checked for oncoming traffic, but admitted that he did not see the motorcyclist. The court stated that the motorcyclist was entitled to assume that the vehicle controlled by the stop sign would yield and granted summary judgment to plaintiff. Clearly, the statutory violation together with the motorist’s admission of his failure to see were dispositive.
In Marcel v. Chief Energy Corp., 38 A.D.3d 502, 832 N.Y.S.2d 61 (2nd Dept.2007), the court held that defendant truck driver's failure to not only bring his truck to a stop at a stop sign, but also his subsequent failure to yield to vehicles in the intersecting thoroughfare operating with the right of way, violated VTL §1142(a) and constituted negligence as a matter of law even though the driver allegedly brought truck to a stop before proceeding into the intersection.
Where there are triable issues of fact as to the comparative negligence of both drivers, summary judgment motions will generally not be successful. Even if one driver has violated the Vehicle and Traffic Law and is found negligent as a matter of law, issues of comparative negligence by the other driver will result in triable issues. For example, in Perez v. Paljevic, 31A.D.3d, 520, 818 N.Y.S.2d 581(2nd Dept. 2006), defendant stopped at a stop sign to let people pass, and then proceeded into the intersection without yielding the right-of-way and collided with plaintiff’s vehicle. The court reversed a jury finding that defendant was not negligent and held that defendant was negligent as a matter of law for violating VTL 1142(a). The court stated:
Such violations constitute negligence as a matter of law and could not properly be disregarded by the jury... notwithstanding that the plaintiff may have contributed to the accident by allegedly exceeding the speed limit.
However, the case was remanded for a new trial as there were issues as to plaintiff’s comparative negligence in traveling at an excessive speed. Although a statutory violation may be sufficient to establish liability as a matter of law against one party, it will not result in summary judgment if there are real issues of fact as to comparative negligence.
Similarly, in Romano v. 202 Corp., 305A.D.2d 576, 759 N.Y.S.2d 365 (2nd Dept. 2003), defendant B failed to fully stop at a stop sign and was struck by defendant A who was traveling through the intersection at excessive speed. Although the lower court dismissed the claims against defendant A, the claims were reinstated by the appellate court. The court held that the fact that one defendant violated a stop sign would not preclude a finding as a matter of law that the negligent conduct of the speeding defendant contributed to the accident.
In Strasburg v. Campbell, 28 A.D.3d 1131, 816 N.Y.S.2d 627 (4th Dept. 2006), the Campbell vehicle disregarded a red light and struck the vehicle operated by defendant Fernando which entered the intersection with a green light. Fernando moved to dismiss the complaint against him. However, the motion was denied because of Fernando’s own deposition testimony that he was making a left turn from the right lane and his ability to see traffic entering the intersection from the west was impaired by a vehicle to his left also making a left turn. The court held that even if a vehicle enters the intersection with a green light, the driver is obligated to exercise reasonable care. In this case, there was an issue of fact as to whether Fernando was negligent in failing to exercise reasonable care which precluded summary judgment.
As with any summary judgment motion, speculation and conjecture is insufficient to defeat summary judgment. Alvarez v. Prospect Hosp. 68 N.Y.2d 320, 508 N.Y.S.2d 923 (1986). There must be admissible evidence of comparative negligence. For example, in Bongiovi v.Hoffman,18 A.D.3d 686, 795 N.Y.S.2d 354 (2nd Dept. 2005), plaintiff was granted summary judgment where defendant disregarded a stop sigh and collided with plaintiff who had the right-of-way. Defendant submitted no admissible evidence that plaintiff was speeding.
Counsel representing both plaintiffs and defendants in motor vehicle cases must be sensitive to the judicial trend of granting summary judgment in cases involving statutory violations where no issue of negligence exists against the driver of the other vehicle.