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Robert Harders and Kathleen v. Estate of Trieu Tran and Tu Tran

December 14, 2010

ROBERT HARDERS AND KATHLEEN HARDERS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ESTATE OF TRIEU TRAN AND TU TRAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF TRIEU N. TRAN, DECEASED; GUY J. MURRAY; ESTATE OF LYNN TAITT-ISAAC; AND PETER J. ISAAC, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF LYNN TAITT-ISAAC, DECEASED, DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Presently before the Court are the Motions for summary judgment by Estate of Trieu Tran and Tu Tran (Dkt. No. 52) and Peter Isaac and Estate of Lynn Taitt-Isaac (Dkt. No. 51) ("Defendants"), and the Amended Motion for summary judgment by Guy Murray (Dkt. No. 40), against Robert and Katherine Harders ("Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs commenced this action by filing a Complaint on December 22, 2008. Dkt. No. 1. Guy Murray ("Mr. Murray") filed an Answer on February 10, 2009 (Dkt. No. 14); Estate of Trieu Tran and Tu Tran ("Tran") filed an Answer and Cross-claim against Mr. Murray, and Estate of Lynn Tait Issac and Peter J. Isaac ("the Isaacs") (Dkt. No. 18) and an Amended Answer and Cross-Claim on February 20, 2009 (Dkt. No. 20); the Isaacs filed an Answer and Cross-claim against Estate of Trieu Tran, Tu Tran, and Mr. Murray on April 8, 2009 (Dkt. No. 23); and Estate of Trieu Tran and Tu Tran filed an Answer to Cross-claim on April 28, 2009 (Dkt. No. 31).

For the reasons that follow, the Motions for summary judgment by Tran and the Isaacs are denied with respect to both the claims and cross-claims against them. Defendant Murray's Motion for summary judgment is granted with respect to both Plaintiffs' claims and Co-Defendants' cross-claims.

II. BACKGROUND

This action arises out of a multi-car accident that involved nine different vehicles, which occurred in the westbound lanes of the New York State Thruway ("freeway") in Canajoharie, New York, at approximately 4:23 p.m. on March 5, 2007. Dkt. No. 44, Ex. 5 at 4. Defendants Trieu N. Tran and Lynn Taitt-Isaac were killed in the incident. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 4 at 1. Actions commenced in the Northern District on behalf of Mr. Tran and Ms. Taitt-Isaac against various involved drivers, including Mr. Harders and Mr. Murray, have been settled, which leaves Plaintiffs' action as the only action remaining. Tran v. Murray, Case No. 1:08-CV-00193; Isaac v. Murray, Case No. 1:08-CV-00561.

Trooper J.C. Salatel of the New York State Police prepared several MV-104A accident reports in connection with the incident. SPPE33000019 (Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 3 at 1), SPPE33000020 (Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 3 at 2), and SPPE33000021 (Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 3 at 3). Also, Trooper Salatel and Investigator Jonathan Kelly completed a 9-page incident report between March 5, 2007 and March 14, 2007. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 4. Finally, Investigator Michael J. MacIntosh, a collision reconstruction specialist, completed a collision reconstruction summary report in July 2007. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5.

The nine vehicles involved in the incident were a blue Daewoo operated by Defendant Trieu Tran ("Tran vehicle"); a dark green Honda Civic operated by Defendant Lynn Taitt-Isaac, with her husband, Defendant Peter Isaac, as a passenger ("Isaac vehicle"); a white Infiniti operated by Guy Murray ("Murray vehicle"); a Schneider tractor-trailer operated by Plaintiff Robert Harders ("Schneider trailer"); a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer operated by non-party Timothy DeGrace ("Wal-Mart trailer"); an Arnold Transportation tractor-trailer operated by non-party Henry Meade ("Arnold trailer"); a GMC pickup truck operated by non-party Darren Brandt ("Brandt vehicle"), a Chevrolet Cavalier operated by non-party Nicholas Renna ("Renna vehicle"); and a white van operated by non-party William Parker ("Parker vehicle"). See Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 1-2. Peter Isaac, Guy Murray, Kathleen Harders, Timothy DeGrace, Henry Meade, Darren Brandt, and Nicholas Renna were each deposed in connection with the lawsuits arising out of the incident. Dkt. No. 44, Ex. 6; Dkt. No. 45, Ex. 7; Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 8; Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 9; Dkt. No. 47, Ex. 10; Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 11; and Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 12. Two investigators, MacIntosh and McLaughlin, both collision reconstruction specialists, were deposed as non-party witnesses. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13; Dkt. No. 50, Ex. 14.

Weather conditions elsewhere on the freeway were sunny and clear during the afternoon of the incident; however, the incident occurred within a 200 to 300 foot zone where snow blowing off of the Mohawk River created a whiteout in which driver visibility was at or near zero. Dkt. No. 44, Ex. 6 at 19; Dkt. No. 45, Ex. 7 at 16; Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 8 at 32; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 20-21. The first of the nine relevant vehicles to enter the whiteout was the Tran vehicle. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 2; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 52-53; see Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 56-57. Upon entering the whiteout, Mr. Tran either brought his vehicle to a stop or slowed it down. Dkt. No. 44, Ex. 6 at 23-24; Dkt. No. 45, Ex. 7 at 55, 63; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 152; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 53-54.

The next vehicle to enter the whiteout was the Isaac vehicle. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 2; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 53. Before encountering the whiteout, Ms. Taitt-Isaac was driving at approximately 70 miles per hour, and Peter Isaac was reading in the passenger seat. Dkt. No. 44 at 18, 61. Upon seeing the whiteout, but before their vehicle entered it, Ms. Taitt-Isaac said "uh oh," and began slowing down. Id. at 61-63, 117.

The Isaacs did not stop and pull over before entering the whiteout because, as Mr. Isaac stated in his deposition, they believed that they could negotiate it safely by slowing down. Id. at 128-129. The Isaac vehicle entered the whiteout at between 30 and 40 miles per hour in the right lane. Id. at 21-22. Peter Isaac stated that visibility inside the whiteout was near zero, such that he could only see a foot in front of the front bumper of the Isaac vehicle, and could not see anything to his left or right. Id. at 22, 110. A few seconds after the Isaac vehicle entered the whiteout, its front bumper struck the rear of the Tran vehicle. Id. at 24-25.

According to Peter Isaac, the Tran vehicle had its brake lights on and was not moving. Id. at 23-24. The Isaacs did not see the Tran vehicle until they were within 4 or 5 feet of it, by which point Mr. Isaac believes it was too late to stop. Id. at 23. The impact with the Isaac vehicle propelled the Tran vehicle farther west along the freeway, but Mr. Isaac was not sure how much farther. Id. at 26-27, 79, 112. Mr. Isaac did not notice what happened to the Tran vehicle after the initial collision. Id. at 25. Mr. Isaac never saw the Murray vehicle, and nothing about the collision between the Isaac vehicle and the Tran vehicle gave Mr. Isaac the impression that the Tran vehicle had been in a prior collision. Id. at 64, 69.

One or two minutes after their vehicle hit the Tran vehicle, the Isaacs got out of their vehicle, fearing that it was on fire. Id. at 27-28, 119. Ms. Taitt-Isaac then got back in the vehicle while Mr. Isaac walked onto the right shoulder. Id. at 28, 119-121. While on the shoulder, Mr. Isaac heard a vehicle approach and saw a large truck strike the Isaac vehicle. Id. at 28, 83. After the incident, luggage from the Isaac vehicle was found underneath the Schneider trailer, and a trail led from the Schneider trailer back to the Isaac vehicle, suggesting that it might have been the Schneider trailer that struck the Isaac vehicle. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 34; see also Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 2; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 59.

Mr. Murray generally kept his car on cruise control between 60 and 65 miles per hour prior to entering the whiteout. Dkt. No. 45, Ex. 7 at 16. Less than a mile east of the whiteout, Mr. Murray passed two tractor-trailers, which were the Wal-Mart trailer and the Schneider trailer. Id. at 18, 48-49, 56, 60, 90-91. Just past Exit 29, Mr. Murray came over a hill and saw the whiteout. Id. at 17. At this point, Mr. Murray was still in the left lane on account of having passed the two trailers. Id. at 49-50, 61. Mr. Murray applied his brakes and slowed down to around 40 miles per hour, but still entered the whiteout within a matter of seconds. Id. at 17, 19. In the whiteout, Mr. Murray could not see the hood of his own vehicle, any lane markings, or any other vehicles. Id. at 19, 23, 61.

Mr. Murray emerged from the whiteout several seconds later and was still in the left lane.

Id. at 21, 28-29. While in the whiteout, however, Mr. Murray had "clipped an object." Id. at 19. He believed the object was a vehicle given its presence in the travel lanes of the freeway, and later concluded that it had been a blue vehicle (which would suggest it was the Tran vehicle) because he found blue paint on the bumper of his vehicle. Id. at 19-22. Mr. Murray reached the conclusion that the Tran vehicle must had been stopped when he clipped it because he believed that his vehicle would have been knocked off of the road by the force of the impact if the Tran vehicle had been moving. Id. at 55, 63. Mr. Murray stated in his deposition that he struck only the one vehicle. Id. at 33.

It was later determined that the right side of the Murray vehicle hit the passenger side of the Tran vehicle, demonstrating that the Tran vehicle was already facing eastbound (against traffic) as a result of the prior collision with the Isaac vehicle. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 97-98, 123-126, 174. Mr. Murray acknowledged that he had seen blowing snow on the freeway on prior occasions, but testified that he had "[n]ever in [his] life" seen whiteout conditions comparable to those he encountered on March 5, 2007. Dkt. No. 45, Ex. 7 at 70-71, 78.

Mr. Harders, a veteran truck driver, was driving a Schneider trailer that was equipped with a governor that kept its speed at or below 65 miles per hour. Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 8 at 8-9, 66. Before encountering the whiteout, Mr. Harders was traveling at 60 miles per hour in the right lane, with the Wal-Mart trailer behind him. Id. at 33-34. Upon observing the whiteout, Mr. Harders began gearing down and braking, but his Schneider trailer entered the whiteout within seconds. Id. at 35. Once in the whiteout, Mr. Harders could not see any other vehicles, lines on the road, or guardrails; in fact, he could not even see past his windshield or see his mirrors. Id. at 36, 48, 120-121, 138. Mr. Harders did not attempt to pull over. Id. at 131.

Inside the whiteout, Mr. Harders felt an impact, as though he had gone over a large bump. Id. at 37. This impact caused Mr. Harders to be thrown out of his seat and hit his head. Id. at 38. After the impact, Mr. Harders was concerned that the truck might jackknife or fall over, so he kept driving in an attempt to keep the truck upright. Id. at 38-39. Mr. Harders did not remember coming to a stop, but other evidence establishes that he stopped on the right shoulder, outside the whiteout. Id. at 39; Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 2; Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 24. Mr. Harders never saw a blue vehicle, and he recalled only the one "thump." Dkt. No, 46, Ex. 8 at 45, 60, 124.

Non-party Timothy DeGrace, a veteran truck driver, stated that the Schneider trailer had just passed his Wal-Mart trailer when both trailers entered the whiteout in the right lane. Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 9 at 8-9, 31, 44, 48, 84. Upon seeing Mr. Harders braking, Mr. DeGrace braked and saw the Schneider trailer disappear into the whiteout. Id. at 44, 96-97. According to Mr. DeGrace, the appearance of the whiteout was sudden and unexpected, and he could not see more than two feet in front of him while once he was in the whiteout. Id. at 98, 121. The Wal-Mart trailer ultimately hit the Tran vehicle and came to rest along the left shoulder of the freeway, near the center median. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 3; Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 12 at 25, 61. When DeGrace got out of the Wal-Mart trailer, he observed that the Isaac vehicle was well behind him, facing east in the right shoulder of the westbound lanes. Dkt. No. 46, Ex. 9 at 92-93.

Non-party Henry Meade, a veteran truck driver traveling in the Arnold trailer, was driving about 60 miles per hour immediately prior to the incident. Id. at 8-10, 23, 30. Shortly after 4:00 p.m., Mr. Meade was in the right lane when he observed the whiteout, began to slow down, and entered the whiteout within seconds. Id. at 30-32. Mr. Meade stated that the appearance of the whiteout was sudden and unexpected. Id. at 79. In the whiteout, Mr. Meade stated that he "had zero visibility," could barely see the hood of his vehicle, and could not see any other vehicles. Id. at 32, 78. Mr. Meade continued to slow down inside the whiteout and eventually came to a stop five feet behind the Tran vehicle, with the Wal-Mart trailer to his left. Id. at 33-34. The Isaac vehicle was "further back" from Mr. Meade's position when Mr. Meade stopped. Id. at 70, 71.

Non-party Darren Brandt entered the whiteout traveling at 70 to 71 miles per hour and could see the Wal-Mart trailer in front of him. Id. at 16-17. Brandt became aware of the whiteout when the Wal-Mart trailer "disappeared" into it "complete[ly]" and "instant[ly]." Id. at 22, 53. Brandt stated that the appearance of the whiteout was sudden and unexpected. Id. at 19, 49. Brandt entered the whiteout in the left lane. Id. at 19. In the whiteout, Brandt could see "nothing" apart from the left guardrail. Id. at 23, 43, 59. He attempted to use the guardrail as a guide, but collided with the rear end of the Wal-Mart trailer. Id. at 24, 59. The Brandt vehicle caught fire in the collision, and Brandt exited his vehicle just before it exploded. Id. at 25-26.

Non-party Nicholas Renna was driving in a Chevrolet Cavalier and was traveling at the speed limit prior to entering the whiteout. Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 12 at 7-10, 12. Just west of Canajoharie, Mr. Renna encountered the whiteout, which he entered in the right lane. Id. at 14-16. According to Mr. Renna, the appearance of the whiteout was sudden and unexpected, and the visibility inside the whiteout was not more than thirty feet. Id. at 16-17, 33. Mr. Renna saw a truck, the Arnold trailer, in front of him in the whiteout, and a collision ensued within a matter of seconds. After the accident, the Renna vehicle ended up underneath the rear end of the Arnold trailer. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 3; Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 12 at 18-20. William Parker entered the whiteout after the Renna vehicle and stopped his white van behind the Brandt vehicle. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 2-3; see Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 11 at 44. The Parker vehicle sustained some scorching damage as a result of its proximity to the fire on the Brandt vehicle. Dkt. No. 43, Ex. 5 at 3.

After the accident, the State Police were called to investigate and determine what had happened. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 10-12. Trooper Salatel was the first officer on the scene. Id. at 130. Investigator Kelly was in charge of the investigation as a whole. Id. at 18. The investigation included a reconstruction of the incident by Investigator MacIntosh, who was assisted by Investigator McLaughlin. See id. at 12-13; Dkt. No. 50, Ex. 14 at 10-12. MacIntosh and McLaughlin were certified accident reconstructionists, each of whom had investigated hundreds of cases. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 8, 10, 47; Dkt. No, 50, Ex. 14 at 78. Each had been qualified as an accident reconstruction expert in court. Dkt. No. 49, Ex. 13 at 10; Dkt. No. 50, Ex. 14 at ...


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