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James BAKER, Plaintiff, v. Trenisa GILL, Joseph Miller, Allison L. Yuna and Christian Lynch, Defendants.
The above-captioned personal injury action involves a four-vehicle chain reaction accident that occurred at approximately 9:00 p.m. on May 16, 2019, in Rochester, New York. The plaintiff, while operating a motorcycle, struck the back of the rear-most vehicle. Each defendant has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) he/she was not negligent, and (2) he/she was not the proximate cause of the accident, for which the plaintiff was solely at fault.
The following facts are not in dispute, unless specifically noted.
All of the vehicles operated by the parties were traveling west on a highway known as the “Inner Loop.” The two west-bound lanes were bordered to the right by a narrow shoulder, measuring approximately three feet.
The first of three collisions occurred when the vehicle driven by defendant Allison L. Yuna (the “Yuna vehicle”) was changing lanes, from the left west-bound lane to the right west-bound lane. As the Yuna vehicle moved into the right lane, it struck the driver side of the vehicle driven by Daniel Lynch (the “Lynch vehicle”). After being “side swiped,” the Lynch vehicle pulled over to the right, and the Yuna vehicle pulled over behind Lynch. It is not disputed that the Lynch and Yuna vehicles were partially in the right lane of traffic and partially on the shoulder (see NYSCEF Documents No. 181 and No. 183, which contain a photograph depicting the Yuna vehicle partially in the shoulder and obstructing the right line of travel).
After about five minutes had passed (Lynch testified that he had been texting his mother, the named defendant, who owned the vehicle) defendant Joseph Miller, who was driving in the right west-bound lane of the Inner Loop, approached the Lynch and Yuna vehicles and slowed his vehicle (the “Miller vehicle”).
Here the testimony diverged, as Miller testified that he came to a complete stop, blocking the lane of travel and unable to pass because of vehicles passing him in the left lane, while defendant Trenisa Gill, the operator of the next vehicle in the chain (the “Gill vehicle”), testified that the Miller vehicle was still moving, but braking, when she came up on it while also traveling in the right lane.
Both Miller and Gill agree that the Gill vehicle “tapped” the Miller vehicle. Defendant Gill testified that as she approached the Miller vehicle she was travelling at approximately “50 miles per hour” and by her own admission, was following too closely, about twenty feet behind the vehicle in front of her.
After the Gill vehicle came to a stop, within “a couple of seconds” (testimony of Gill) a motorcycle operated by the plaintiff James Baker struck the rear of the Gill vehicle. According to his testimony, Baker had been traveling somewhere between forty and forty-five miles per hour in the right west-bound lane and reached what he described as a peak in the roadway on the Inner Loop. As he reached the peak, he observed two cars in front of him, also in the right travel lane, and realized that they were stopped. Baker testified that when he first saw those two stopped vehicles, the closest vehicle was approximately twenty feet from the front of his motorcycle. He attempted to stop by applying the motorcycle's front brake, rear brake, and clutch. Unable to veer left due to the presence of a fellow motorcyclist riding side by side, Baker veered right in an attempt to steer around the Gill vehicle. His motorcycle started to slow and then skidded approximately ten feet before colliding into the rear of the Gill vehicle. Upon contact, Baker was thrown from the motorcycle. He sustained multiple injuries as a result of the accident, including the amputation of his left leg.
There was considerable conflicting testimony and evidence submitted by the parties. Yuna and Lynch testified that the roads were wet but it was not raining; Miller said it was raining, and Gill testified that it was “raining hard.” Some testified the accident occurred in an area that was well-lit; others said it was not. Baker testified that he had no ability to see the vehicle in front of him because of a rise in the roadway until he was twenty feet away; an accident reconstruction expert said that the rise had no impact on the visibility. Gill for her part testified she had no trouble seeing the vehicle in front of her.
There was testimony regarding whether hazard flashers had been activated on each vehicle. Yuna did not apply her hazards, but Lynch did. Miller also did not activate his flashers, nor did Gill. As to the manner in which Gill came to a stop, Baker testified that the vehicle in front of him — the Gill vehicle — “slammed” on its brakes.
Baker also testified — as did members of his motorcycle club who were riding alongside and behind him — that he saw only taillights, no hazard flashers, on the vehicle ahead of him; that he did not see the lights until he was about twenty feet away; and that he had only about 2-5 seconds in which to react, testimony consistent with Gill's testimony.
It is well-settled that the proponent of a summary judgment motion must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact necessitating a trial (Oddo v City of Buffalo, 159 AD3d 1519, 1520 [4th Dept 2018]; Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853 ). The failure to make such prima facie showing requires a denial of the motion, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposing papers. (Alvarez v Prospect Hospital, 68 NY2d 320, 324 ; CPLR 3212 [b].) Proof offered by the moving party must be in admissible form. Further, the evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. (See Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562 ; Dix v Pines Hotel, Inc., 188 AD2d 1007 [4th Dept 1992].) Once a prima facie showing has been made, however, the burden shifts to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form, sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact which require a trial of the action (Alvarez, 68 NY2d at 324).
In the context of a rear-end motor vehicle accident, “It is well established that when the driver of an automobile approaches another automobile from the rear, he or she is bound to maintain a reasonably safe rate of speed and control over his or her vehicle, and to exercise reasonable care to avoid colliding with the other vehicle” (Brooks v High St. Professional Bldg., Inc., 34 AD3d 1265, 1266, 825 NYS2d 330, 331 [4th Dept 2006]) [internal quotations and citations omitted]). Further, a rear-end collision with a stopped vehicle establishes a prima facie case of negligence on the part of the driver of the rear vehicle (Macri v Kotrys, 164 AD3d 1642, 1643, 84 NYS3d 293, 294 [4th Dept 2018] [internal quotations and citations omitted].
In order to rebut a prima face showing, the driver of the rear vehicle must submit a non-negligent explanation for the collision (Id.), which can be, as has been held, a “sudden stop of the lead vehicle” ․, and such explanation is sufficient to overcome the inference of negligence and preclude an award of summary judgment (Id.). (Sims v Ciccone-Burton, 167 AD3d 1541 [4th Dept 2018]; Rodriguez-Johnson v Hunt, 279 AD2d 781 [3rd Dept 2001].)
Further, where a preceding vehicle has successfully and completely stopped, it severs the chain of causation (Schmidt v. Guenther, 103 AD3d 1162, 1163 (4th Dept 1162 )) and cannot be held to have proximately caused injuries resulting from a rear-end collision absent “extraordinary circumstances” (Schmidt at 1162-1163).
I: Defendant Gill's Motion for Summary Judgment
As acknowledged by the plaintiff, a rear-end collision with a stopped vehicle establishes a prima facie case of negligence on the part of the driver of the rear vehicle, and it is undisputed that the plaintiff's motorcycle, the rear-most vehicle in the accident chain, directly collided with the rear of the Gill vehicle. Plaintiff asserts, nonetheless, that Gill's sudden stop (she “suddenly slammed on her brakes”), her failure to illuminate her hazards, the road conditions at the time of the accident (a poorly lit area and rain falling “very hard”), her excessive speed (by plaintiff's testimony, as much as fifty miles per hour), operating her vehicle too closely behind the Miller vehicle (according to Gill's own testimony, she was twenty feet behind the Miller vehicle when she began braking), and the fact that as little as two seconds expired from the time the plaintiff saw the Gill vehicle and when he struck it, all constitute “non-negligent” explanations as to why he was unable to stop his vehicle in a safe fashion, thus rebutting the presumption of negligence and creating an issue of fact.
The court agrees. Although there is considerable conflicting testimony as to road conditions, speed of the vehicles, the distance involved in stopping, and the extent of visibility, the evidence when viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, establishes at least a question of fact as to whether there were non-negligent explanations for why the plaintiff Baker was unable to safely stop his vehicle (but see Shamah v Richmond County Ambulance Serv., Inc., 279 AD2d 564, 565 [2d Dept 2001]: “Conclusory assertions of a sudden and unexpected stop are insufficient to rebut the inference of negligence”). Both Gill and Baker state that the impact of the motorcycle was at most a few seconds after Gill applied her brakes.
The court disagrees with Gill that Baker's negligent operation of his motorcycle was, as a matter of law, the sole proximate cause of the accident. Although the indicators of Baker's negligence are many and formidable — Baker was perhaps intoxicated, traveling too fast under conditions then and there existing, and riding side by side with another motorcycle (although this is expressly allowed by Vehicle and Traffic Law § 252[a]), nonetheless, it is the province of the jury to sort out and determine issues of fact, which negligence and proximate cause are.
Thus, the motion by defendant Gill for summary judgment and striking the plaintiff's complaint is DENIED.
II: Defendant Miller's Motion for Summary Judgment
Miller moves for summary judgment seeking to strike the Complaint and any and all cross-claims.
There is no contention that Miller stopped suddenly. In fact, the undisputed testimony is that he saw the Yuna vehicle with ample time to safely stop ten feet behind it. Nor is there any contention or evidence that he could have safely moved from his position behind the Yuna vehicle and continued in the left lane. Miller testified - with no contradiction - that there were vehicles to his left that prevented him from going around the Yuna and Lynch vehicles.
Rather, Baker argues in opposition that Miller was negligent and, presumably, set in motion the chain collision of the two vehicles behind him, in that he failed to move his vehicle entirely off the roadway and onto the shoulder, and that he failed to illuminate his hazard flashers, in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1163(e).
As to whether Miller was negligent in not moving his vehicle off to the side of the road, his vehicle was not disabled, he had no time to do so (it is uncontradicted that only a few seconds elapsed from the time he stopped to the time the motorcycle struck the Gill vehicle), and he was initially under no obligation to do so (not knowing why the vehicles ahead of him were stopped). Thus, Vehicle and Traffic Law §§ 1201 and 1202 (a)(1)(j) are not applicable.
That Miller did not activate his flashers is also no indication of negligence because, as a matter of law, there was no time to consider doing so, and in any event, he had no knowledge as to why the vehicles ahead of him were stopped.
Additionally, deposition testimony coupled with photographs of the scene, authenticated at the deposition and properly received into evidence, establish that the shoulder of the roadway is only three feet wide in the area where the vehicles were stopped, thus not allowing any of the stopped vehicles to move completely off the roadway.
The Court determines that extraordinary circumstances, which would have raised an issue of fact as to whether the plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by any negligence on the part of defendant Miller, did not exist. Defendant Miller therefore established his entitlement to judgment as a matter of law (see Zedik v Nance, 144 AD3d 1584 [4th Dept 2016]; see also Princess v Pohl, 38 AD3d 1323 [4th Dept 2007], lv denied 9 NY3d 802 ). The plaintiff has offered no proof in admissible form which would create a triable issue of fact.
Accordingly, defendant Miller's motion for summary judgment is granted. The plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims interposed by the co-defendants are hereby dismissed as against defendant Miller.
III: Defendant Yuna's Motion for Summary Judgment
Defendant Yuna argues that although she was concededly negligent in side-swiping the Lynch vehicle, any negligence on her part was not a cause of the plaintiff's injuries, since the vehicles behind her, the Miller vehicle and the Gill vehicle, had safely come to a full stop. In light of the undisputed facts, the Court determines that the stop of the Miller vehicle broke the chain of causation and thereby relieved defendant Yuna of liability for the plaintiff's injuries (see Schmidt v Guenther, 103 AD3d 1162 [4th Dept 2013]; see also Dauber v Stone, 76 AD3d 699 [2d Dept 2010]).
Plaintiff counters that a question of fact exists as to whether defendant Yuna's conduct “set into motion an eminently foreseeable chain of events” (Tutrani v County of Suffolk, 10 NY3d 906, 907 , citing to Sheffer v. Critoph, 13 AD3d 1185, 1187 [4th Dept. 2004], and quoting Murtagh v. Beachy, 6 AD3d 786, 788 [3d Dept. 2004]), and thus “created a foreseeable danger that vehicles would have to brake aggressively in an effort to avoid the lane obstruction created by his vehicle, thereby increasing the risk of rear-end collisions” (Tutrani at 908).
However, unlike the defendant in Tutrani, Yuna did not decelerate “abruptly” (Tutrani at 907). Rather, she negligently sideswiped the Lynch vehicle, and then both vehicles pulled over to the side of the road, consistent with their obligation under the Vehicle and Traffic Law.
Moreover, the subsequent chain of collisions occurred minutes after the Yuna and Lynch vehicles had come to a stop, not within a few seconds. Again, a comparison can be made to the sequence of events in Tutrani, where the accident occurred “within seconds” of the defendant's “abrupt deceleration,” (Id.), and thus were not so “remote in time” (Id.).
The court also determines that defendant Yuna's alleged violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law have either no application to this case or are otherwise made irrelevant by virtue of the undisputed facts, as stated above.
Accordingly, defendant Yuna's motion for summary judgment is granted. The plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims interposed by the co-defendants are hereby dismissed as against defendant Yuna.
IV: Defendant Lynch's Motion for Summary Judgment
Defendant Lynch similarly argues that Daniel Lynch was not negligent, and that any alleged negligence on the part of Mr. Lynch was not a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, because other vehicles were able to safely stop behind the Lynch vehicle prior to the plaintiff's accident.
The undisputed evidence establishes that the Lynch vehicle was struck by the Yuna vehicle, and that Mr. Lynch had a statutory duty to pull over, which he accomplished in a reasonably safe manner. No proof was offered to establish that Mr. Lynch was negligent in failing to pull the Lynch vehicle over at a point on the Inner Loop where the shoulder was wider and his vehicle would not have been blocking traffic in the right westbound lane. Indeed, defendant Miller saw that the Yuna vehicle was stopped, and he was able to bring the Miller vehicle to a gradual stop without skidding, over the course of approximately 30 seconds, behind the Lynch vehicle, leaving approximately 10 to 15 feet between them.
Contrary to his argument, the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Mr. Lynch's conduct set into motion an eminently foreseeable chain of events that resulted in the collision between the plaintiff's vehicle and the Gill vehicle. There is no evidence, for example, that Mr. Lynch stopped his vehicle in a sudden manner or that any of the defendants' vehicles were ever in motion during the time in which the plaintiff observed them. Further, the actions of Mr. Lynch were so remote in time from the plaintiff's injury as to preclude recovery as a matter of law. As argued by defendant Lynch, the plaintiff was required to observe what was in the roadway in front of him, sufficient to regulate the speed at which he traveled. Moreover, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was caused to strike the rear of the Gill vehicle as a result of any of the preceding defendants stopping short. Rather, the plaintiff testified at his deposition that, as he reached the peak of the roadway, he observed cars in front of him and then realized they were stopped. The plaintiff observed those vehicles from a distance of twenty feet, while the plaintiff was traveling at 40 miles per hour.
Addressing the plaintiff's claim that Mr. Lynch violated certain sections of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the Court hereby determines that the statutory provisions at issue have either no application to this case or are otherwise made irrelevant by virtue of the undisputed facts.
Inasmuch as the Yuna and Miller vehicles had successfully and completely stopped their vehicles behind the Lynch vehicle prior to the plaintiff's collision with the Gill vehicle, and in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, the Court hereby determines that the plaintiff's injuries were not proximately caused by any negligence on the part of defendant Lynch (see Princess v Pohl, 38 AD3d 1323 [4th Dept 2007], lv denied 9 NY3d 802 ).
Accordingly, defendant Lynch's motion for summary judgment is granted. The plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims interposed by the co-defendants are hereby dismissed as against defendant Lynch.
The motion (Motion no. 2) of defendant Joseph Miller, for an Order pursuant to CPLR 3212, granting summary judgment in favor of said defendant, dismissing the plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims by all co-defendants against said defendant, is hereby GRANTED; and
The motion and cross-motion (Motion no. 3) of defendant Kristin N. Lynch (allegedly, incorrectly sued as Christian Lynch), for an Order pursuant to CPLR 3212, granting summary judgment in favor of said defendant, dismissing the plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims by all co-defendants against said defendant, is hereby GRANTED; and
The motion (Motion no. 4) of defendant Allison L. Yuna, for an Order pursuant to CPLR 3212, granting summary judgment in favor of said defendant, dismissing the plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims by all co-defendants against said defendant, is hereby GRANTED; and
The motion (Motion no. 5) of defendant Trenisa Gill, for an Order pursuant to CPLR 3212, granting summary judgment in favor of said defendant, dismissing the plaintiff's complaint and all cross-claims by all co-defendants against said defendant, is hereby DENIED; and
Any additional relief requested in the defendants' respective motions, but not specifically addressed herein, is hereby DENIED.
Christopher S. Ciaccio, J.
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: E2019006141
Decided: March 25, 2021
Court: Supreme Court, Monroe County, New York.
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