Court of Appeals April-May Session: Arguments of Interest for May 1, 2018

The Court of Appeals returns for the final week of the April-May Session with four cases (three arguments) on its argument docket today (the Court’s case summaries can be found here).  The Court will hear arguments on the following issues today: (1) can the State prove that a parent has maltreated her child by using the child to facilitate shoplifting; (2) whether the State may be the proximate cause of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident at an intersection where it failed to complete a traffic study or upgrade the traffic control or warning devices; and (3) whether a criminal defendant may be convicted of depraved indifference assault where it was clear that he committed the assault intentionally.

No. 66 Brown v State of New York
No. 67 Brown, as administratrix, v State of New York

You’ve stopped at intersections before where you just can’t see any oncoming cars, trucks, or motorcycles without creeping way too far into the intersection, right? I know I have. Those intersections are dangerous, and result in far too many serious accidents. One such accident is before the Court of Appeals today.

In 2003, the plaintiff, Linda Brown, and her husband were riding a motorcycle on State Route 350 in Wayne County (where I grew up), just east of Rochester. They were driving about 55 miles per hour, which was the speed limit there, when the pickup truck driven by Henry Friend pulled into the intersection. The motorcycle slammed into Friend’s truck, killing Brown’s husband and seriously injuring her.

In the subsequent personal injury action, Brown sued the State, alleging that the intersection was dangerous because of restricted sight lines, the 55 mph speed limit was excessive for that area, and there weren’t enough warning signs of the intersection on the road. Friend testified that he came to a full stop at the intersection, looked both ways, and never saw any oncoming vehicles before the accident.

The Court of Claims agreed with Brown that the intersection was dangerous, and held that the State had prior notice of the dangerous condition due to 17 prior accidents at that intersection between 1996 and 3002. The Court, however, dismissed Brown’s claims, holding that she failed to prove that the State’s failure to complete a safety study and take corrective action was the proximate cause of the accident.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department reversed on a 3-2 vote, however, and reinstated Brown’s claims. The Court held that the proximate cause issue wasn’t whether the State’s failure to undertake a study was the proximate cause of the accident, but whether the State was aware of the dangerous condition and failed to remedy it, and then that the dangerous condition was the proximate cause.  Using that standard, the Fourth Department held that Brown had shown that the State was negligent, and remitted for a determination of proximate cause.

On remittal, the Court of Claims found the State 100% liable, and awarded about $7 million for Brown’s injuries and her husband’s death.  The Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed, and now the Court of Appeals will hear arguments on the proximate cause issue.

What’s interesting here is that the Court held a municipality liable for failure to complete a traffic study on very similar facts about a year and a half ago. Will the Court extend this decision and apply the same standard to the State?  We’ll see.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department’s orders can be found here (December 2010 order) and here (November 2016 order).

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