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David CASTRO, Claimant, v. STATE of New York, Defendant.
Claimant David Castro (Castro) seeks damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident on January 29, 2014. The accident occurred while Claimant, then an incarcerated individual in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), was being transported by a DOCCS vehicle from Samaritan Medical Center (Samaritan) to Cape Vincent Correctional Facility (Cape Vincent). The DOCCS vehicle in which Claimant was a passenger was stopped behind a marked New York State Police vehicle when it was hit from behind by another vehicle. Claimant alleges Defendant was negligent in the “operation, management, control, supervision and maintenance of this motor vehicle, [and] in failing to keep the vehicle under proper control.”1 Claimant further alleges Defendant was negligent in “failing to properly protect and secure [him] during his transport in the State vehicle.”2
The liability trial of this Claim was conducted virtually on June 28 and 29, 2021 upon stipulation of the parties.3 After trial, the parties were permitted to submit a list of cases for the Court's review in support of their respective position relative to the issue of liability. During the course of trial, five witnesses testified, including the Claimant. Claimant did not mark any exhibits. Defendant marked 19 exhibits, Exhibits A through S inclusive, for identification of which 11, Exhibits A through H inclusive and K, L and S were received into evidence by stipulation of the parties. At the conclusion of Claimant's case, Defendant made a motion to dismiss; Claimant opposed; and the Court reserved decision.
After considering the testimony of the witnesses and evidence received at trial as well as reviewing the applicable law and arguments made by the parties, the Court grants Defendant's motion to dismiss made at the conclusion of trial and dismisses the Claim.
Castro testified that, on January 29, 2014, he was an incarcerated individual at Cape Vincent and had a 10:30 a.m. medical appointment at Samaritan. Castro recalled it was snowy and cold that day. Castro explained that following his appointment, he walked outside to the DOCCS van transporting him and noticed it was still snowing. Castro recalled there were two correction officers transporting him on that day: one was the driver and one sat in the front passenger seat. Castro described he sat in the second row of the van and that there were no other incarcerated individuals being transported. Castro testified that on the drive back to Cape Vincent, there was a blizzard, and the van was sliding from side to side. Castro stated that his medical appointment could have been changed and recalled other medical appointments which were canceled in the past. Castro testified that on this return trip to Cape Vincent, the DOCCS van came to a stop as there was a marked New York State Police vehicle stopped in the roadway in front of the van with its lights on. When the DOCCS van came to a stop, Castro was in his seat. Shortly thereafter, Castro remembered the DOCCS van was struck in the rear resulting in the van hitting the state police vehicle. At the point the DOCCS van hit the state police vehicle, Castro was caused to fall out of his seat.
Four additional witnesses testified at trial, to wit: two state police officers and two DOCCS correction officers. The Court finds these four witnesses to be credible as they provided consistent testimony regarding the events of January 29, 2014. All the witnesses testified and there is no dispute the accident occurred at an area called “Seven Bridges” on State Route 12, Town of Clayton, New York.
New York State Trooper Michael S. Schwedler (Schwedler) testified he has been a trooper for 16 years and has been assigned to routine road patrol. Schwedler testified that, on January 29, 2014, he was at the Alexandria Bay New York State Police barracks when he was directed to respond to a property damage accident. Schwedler testified that as he reached the Seven Bridges area, there was very heavy snow with blowing snow conditions and some snow accumulation on the road. Schwedler indicated that although he had experience driving in the snow, he had some concerns about the road condition that day and drove slowly. Schwedler stated he could not see the road at one point due to near white out conditions with gusting wind. As a result, Schwedler activated his emergency lights and attempted to keep his vehicle as far to the right as possible. However, Schwedler conceded he could not see where his vehicle was on the road. Eventually, Schwedler had to stop his vehicle on the road due to the weather conditions and the lack of visibility. Shortly after Schwedler stopped, a Griffith Energy oil truck struck Schwedler's vehicle. Schwedler testified his vehicle was sideswiped on the driver's side by the Griffith Energy oil truck with the oil truck coming to rest in front of the police vehicle. After his vehicle was struck, Schwedler stated he first got out of his vehicle but, due to the white out conditions, he decided to return to his vehicle and call his supervisor. A minute or two later, Schwedler was struck a second time from the rear by a DOCCS van. Schwedler recalled he did not see the DOCCS van before it hit his vehicle. Schwedler also recalled two male correction officers and one incarcerated individual in the DOCCS van. Schwedler confirmed he never was able to respond to the initial property damage call.
Russell S. Henry (Henry) testified he was a correction officer for 28 years before retiring in 2015. On January 29, 2014, Henry, along with Correction Officer Shane Call (Call), transported Claimant from Cape Vincent to Samaritan. Henry testified he was assigned a Chevrolet passenger van owned by DOCCS that he had driven before and was the driver on January 29, 2014. Henry stated that, prior to transporting Claimant, he obtained the van from the motor pool; checked the operational viability of the van; and subjected the van to a security search. He recalled Call was in the front passenger seat and Claimant, the only incarcerated individual transported that day, was placed in the second bench seat in the rear of the van.
Henry noted January 29, 2014 was a typical winter day in the North Country. Upon questioning, Henry indicated if weather was an impediment to transporting incarcerated individuals, the trip would have been canceled. Indeed, Henry noted that, on occasion, medical appointments for incarcerated individuals have been canceled by the facility due to weather concerns. Henry explained that Cape Vincent supervisors check the weather conditions and cancel transportation if weather is anticipated to be severe. Additionally, Henry testified transport officers can cancel trips due to inclement weather conditions. Henry affirmed that out of hundreds of transports he conducted to and from Cape Vincent, approximately 25 were canceled due to weather-related concerns. Henry further testified he was raised in northern New York State and is aware of lake effect snowfalls and that snowy conditions could “pop up any time.”4
Henry testified the weather conditions changed on the return trip from Samaritan to Cape Vincent. Henry described the accident occurred on State Route 12 near an area called Seven Bridges, which is a two-lane highway with one northbound lane and one southbound lane. When Henry reached the Seven Bridges area, snowfall and snow accumulations gradually increased resulting in drifting snow and zero visibility. Henry described the Seven Bridges area as low lying with flat, open farmland, which permits wind to blow snow across the roadway. Henry stated he did not have any problems keeping the van under control and had the ability to bring the van to a full stop when it was necessary. Henry testified that when he encountered the heavy snow, he slowed his vehicle to approximately 5 to 10 miles per hour and activated the vehicle's hazard lights. Henry recalled he thereafter observed a vehicle in the distance stopped in the roadway with lights flashing. As a result, Henry slowed the van to an eventual stop approximately five to six car lengths behind the vehicle. Henry testified that, after stopping the van, he noticed the vehicle in front of the van was a marked New York State Police vehicle with its lights activated. Henry explained that, after stopping the van, he was struck from the rear, causing the van to strike the state police vehicle. Henry stated the van sustained front end damage when it was pushed into the state police vehicle as well as rear damage from being struck from behind. Henry recalled Claimant was in distress after the accident. Following the collision, Henry called Cape Vincent, which requested an ambulance respond to the scene.
Call testified he has been employed by DOCCS as a correction officer for 22 years. Call testified that, on January 29, 2014, he was working with Henry transporting Claimant to and from Samaritan and described the events and accident of that day consistent with Henry's version of events. He recalled they were assigned a Chevrolet DOCCS van. Call also testified when they left Cape Vincent, it was “snowing a little, [but] nothing severe.” Call confirmed Henry's testimony that there would have been an evaluation of the weather that day and, if the weather was anticipated to be problematic, the trip would be canceled. Call testified that he is aware of “lots of trips” canceled due to weather. Call further described that when he left Samaritan, he was in the front passenger seat, Henry was driving, and Claimant was in the second bench seat behind a security divide in the van. Call testified the weather changed when they reached the Seven Bridges area. Call described the area like the other witnesses; namely, that it was an open area. Call testified there was snow on the road with wind blowing snow across fields and onto the road, resulting in limited visibility. Call stated that, upon experiencing the blowing snow across the road, Henry slowed the van's speed. Call observed a stopped vehicle with flashing lights on the road in front of the van blocking their lane of travel. Call further stated Henry stopped the van approximately 40 feet behind that stationary vehicle. At that point, Call realized the van was stopped behind a marked state police vehicle. Call testified that approximately 30 seconds after Henry stopped, the DOCCS van was struck from behind. Call explained the impact from behind “shoved” the DOCCS van into the state police vehicle. Call stated that after being struck from behind, he first checked on Claimant and the other vehicles, and then personnel at Cape Vincent were notified of the accident. Call observed damage to the back of the van as a result of a pick-up truck striking the rear of the van. Call stated Claimant received medical assistance from emergency medical technicians at the accident and was thereafter transported to the hospital.
New York State Police Sergeant Edward C. Fillingham (Fillingham) testified he worked for the New York State Police for 26 years before retiring in 2015. On January 29, 2014, Fillingham was the Station Commander at the Alexandria Bay New York State Police barracks and was monitoring traffic as there were accidents occurring due to a snow band of lake effect snow. Fillingham explained snow bands are at times unexpected and random. Fillingham received a call from Schwedler that Schwedler was involved in an accident near the Seven Bridges area. Fillingham, as Schwedler's supervisor, responded to the scene. Fillingham described that when he first left the Alexandria Bay barracks, the roads were mostly clear. However, when he arrived at the accident scene, Fillingham described the roads as covered with snow with the lanes of travel obscured due to blizzard-like conditions. Fillingham testified he observed a state police vehicle toward the right shoulder of the road with a fuel truck in front of it; a DOCCS van behind the police vehicle with a pick-up truck behind the DOCCS van. Fillingham investigated the accidents and authored two separate police accident reports,5 as he considered the accidents to be two separate incidents. Fillingham's investigation included, among other things, statements made by witnesses and drivers of the vehicles involved, damage to the vehicles, and personal observations. The first accident Fillingham investigated was a Griffith Energy oil truck striking the rear driver's side of the state police vehicle driven by Schwedler. The second accident was the pick-up truck striking the DOCCS van. Fillingham confirmed he took photographs of the accident scene, including photographs of all vehicles involved.6 Based upon his investigation, Fillingham concluded the driver of the pick-up truck was driving at a speed not appropriate for the weather and road conditions on January 29, 2014. Fillingham further concluded the pick-up truck, which struck the rear of the DOCCS van, caused the DOCCS van to strike the rear of the state police vehicle. Although the driver of the pick-up truck was not issued any traffic violations, Fillingham determined the driver of the pick-up truck was driving at an excessive rate of speed.
Initially, the Court must determine the standard by which to evaluate Defendant's conduct in transporting Claimant. Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 exempts an “authorized emergency vehicle” from certain rules of the road when it is involved in an “emergency operation” (see Kabir v County of Monroe, 16 NY3d 217, 222-223 ; Sinni v State of New York, UID No. 2012-018-313 [Ct Cl, Fitzpatrick, J., May 24, 2012]; Harrington v State of New York, UID No. 2009-032-501 [Ct Cl, Hard, J., Mar. 31, 2009]). This privilege includes the right to stop, stand, or park in a manner otherwise prohibited by the Vehicle and Traffic Law, to proceed past a steady red signal, flashing red signal or stop sign; to exceed the maximum speed limit; and to disregard regulations governing the direction of movement or turning in specified directions (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 [b] -). Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (e) specifies “[t]he foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Stated differently, operators of authorized emergency vehicles in an emergency situation will be held liable “if their reckless exercise of a privilege granted by [Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (b)] causes personal injuries or property damage” (Kabir, 16 NY3d at 224).
An “[a]uthorized emergency vehicle” is defined in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 101 to include “[e]very ․ correction vehicle.” Additionally, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 114-b defines “emergency operation” as, among other things, “[t]he operation, or parking, of an authorized emergency vehicle,” when the vehicle is engaged in, among other things “transporting prisoners.” Consequently, courts have routinely held that DOCCS vans utilized to transport incarcerated individuals are to be afforded the protections of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (see e.g. Kwaja v State of New York, UID No. 2020-051-017 [Ct Cl, Martin, J., Apr. 29, 2020]; Harrington, 2009-032-501; Christopher v State of New York, UID No. 2008-031-036 [Ct Cl, Minarik, J., July 11, 2008]; Pacheco v State of New York, UID No. 2007-009-044 [Ct Cl, Midey, Jr., J., Jan. 3, 2008]; Harrington v State of New York, UID No. 2007-039-045 [Ct Cl, Ferreira, J., Nov. 7, 2007]; Heckstall v State of New York, UID No. 2004-013-021 [Ct Cl, Patti, J., Apr. 26, 2004]). Moreover, courts have held that a DOCCS incarcerated individual transport van qualifies as a “police vehicle” under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 and is exempt from the requirement that an audible signal be sounded or a red light be displayed in order to be held to the reckless disregard standard (see Harrington, UID No. 2009-032-501; see also Church v City of New York, 268 AD2d 382, 383 [1st Dept 2000]; Klayman v City of New York, 130 AD2d 551, 554 [2d Dept 1987], order amended 142 AD2d 668 [2d Dept 1988]).
Here, the Court finds that the DOCCS van in which Claimant was being transported was a police vehicle engaged in an emergency operation that exercised a privilege afforded under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (b) (1) by stopping in the roadway. Consequently, the Court concludes Defendant's conduct must be evaluated under the reckless disregard standard of care (Harrington, UID No. 2009-032-501).
“A rear-end collision with a stopped or stopping vehicle establishes a prima facie case of negligence on the part of the operator of the rear vehicle, requiring that operator to come forward with evidence of a nonnegligent explanation for the collision to rebut the inference of negligence” (Mihalatos v Barnett, 175 AD3d 492, 493 [2d Dept 2019] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see Barron v Northtown World Auto, 137 AD3d 1708, 1709 [4th Dept 2016]; Borowski v Ptak, 107 AD3d 1498, 1498 [4th Dept 2013]). “Evidence that a vehicle was struck in the rear and propelled into the vehicle in front of it may provide a sufficient non-negligent explanation” (Williams v Sala, 152 AD3d 729, 730 [2d Dept 2017] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). Additionally, “[a] sudden, negligent, or unexplained stop of the lead vehicle can constitute a non-negligent explanation” (Carhuayano v J & R Hacking, 28 AD3d 413, 414 [2d Dept 2006]). Thus, “[i]n a chain collision accident, the operator of the middle vehicle may establish prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that the middle vehicle was properly stopped behind the lead vehicle when it was struck from behind by the rear vehicle and propelled into the lead vehicle” (Chuk Hwa Shin v Correale, 142 AD3d 518, 519 [2d Dept 2016]; see also Gustke v Nickerson, 159 AD3d 1573, 1574 [4th Dept 2018] [“(T)he rearmost driver in a chain-reaction collision bears a presumption of responsibility” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)]).
The Court has reviewed all the photographic evidence, the police accident reports, and the testimony of all witnesses and finds the DOCCS van was a middle vehicle in a chain accident that was properly stopped behind the lead, state police vehicle when it was struck from behind by a pick-up truck, and, consequently, propelled into the state police vehicle. Therefore, the Court concludes this chain accident collision was caused by the driver of the pick-up truck. Accordingly, Defendant has provided sufficient evidence of a non-negligent explanation to rebut the inference of negligence which would confer any liability upon Defendant for the collision.
Despite Claimant's argument that Defendant failed to keep a safe distance between itself and the state police vehicle stopped in front of it (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1129), the undisputed testimony establishes the DOCCS van was stopped at least 40 feet behind the state police vehicle when it was struck in the rear. Consequently, the Court finds Defendant did not fail to keep a safe distance or otherwise act recklessly in stopping its vehicle.
Indeed, the Court concludes the correction officer operating the DOCCS van acted reasonably in light of the sudden and unexpected heavy snowfall coupled with a stopped vehicle blocking the lane of travel upon transporting Claimant back to Cape Vincent.
“Under the emergency doctrine, when [a driver] is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the [driver] to be reasonably so disturbed that [he or she] must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, the [driver] may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context”
(Patterson v Central NY Regional Transp. Auth. [CNYRTA], 94 AD3d 1565, 1565-1566 [4th Dept 2012] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted], lv denied 19 NY3d 815 ). Henry and Call both explained that the weather conditions unexpectedly intensified as they approached the Seven Bridges area, describing wind and snow blowing across fields onto the roadway resulting in limited visibility. Additionally, both Henry and Call testified the DOCCS van also stopped due to the state police vehicle they saw in front of them with lights activated. The Court finds Henry was faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance of inclement weather and a stopped state police vehicle blocking the lane of travel. Moreover, the Court concludes Henry's decision to stop his vehicle, which was done so at a safe distance behind the stopped state police vehicle, was reasonable and prudent under the circumstances.
To the extent Claimant contends Defendant should have canceled his medical appointment because it was snowing when he left Cape Vincent in the morning, the Court finds that DOCCS’ decisions as to when and how to transport incarcerated individuals are discretionary and entitled to immunity (see Allen v State of New York, UID 2021-032-018 [Ct Cl, Hard, J., Jan. 22, 2021]; Herrera v State of New York, UID No. 2013-049-113 [Ct Cl, Weinstein, J., Nov. 20, 2013]; see also McLean v City of New York, 12 NY3d 194, 202  [“discretionary acts may not be a basis of liability”]).
The Court finds Claimant did not prove by a preponderance of the credible evidence the other allegations in his Claim; namely, that Defendant was negligent in the operation, management, control, supervision and maintenance of this motor vehicle or negligently failed to keep the vehicle under proper control.
Therefore, upon consideration of the testimony of the trial witnesses, observing their demeanor and assessing their credibility as well as reviewing all exhibits received at trial and reviewing the applicable law, this Court hereby grants Defendant's motion to dismiss made at the conclusion of trial and dismisses the Claim.
Accordingly, Claim Number 125758 is dismissed in its entirety. Any and all other evidentiary rulings or motions upon which the Court may have previously reserved, or which were not previously determined are hereby denied.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
1. Claim No. 125758 ¶ 24.
2. id. ¶ 25. By Decision and Order dated August 26, 2020 (M-95728) and Decision and Order dated June 10, 2021 (M-96794), Claimant was prohibited from introducing evidence of Defendant's failure to ensure Claimant was secured by a seatbelt to establish Defendant's liability for the negligent transportation of Claimant. Moreover, the Court's June 2021 Order precluded Claimant's expert from testifying about any provision, use or non-use of seatbelts in DOCCS’ vehicles to establish Defendant's liability.
3. Court Ex 1.
4. Quotes reference trial testimony.
5. Exs A, B.
6. Exs D, E, F, G, H.
Catherine E. Leahy-Scott, J.
Response sent, thank you
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Docket No: Claim No. 125758
Decided: September 27, 2021
Court: Court of Claims of New York.
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