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Lake v. State

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

June 22, 2017

WILLIAM J. LAKE, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent.

          Calendar Date: April 27, 2017

          Hinman, Howard & Kattell, LLP, East Greenbush (Linda B. Johnson of counsel) and Steven P. Shultz, Gansevoort, for appellant.

          Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General, Albany (Owen Demuth of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Garry, Devine, Mulvey and Aarons, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Devine, J.

         Appeal from a judgment of the Court of Claims (Hard, J.), entered November 4, 2015, upon a decision of the court in favor of defendant.

         On May 28, 2010, claimant was riding his motorcycle to work on a state-owned freeway in Albany County commonly referred to as alternate Route 7. Claimant was traveling westbound in the right "climbing lane" and was traveling at or below the speed limit of 65 miles per hour. The pickup truck in front of him abruptly braked and moved into the center lane, cutting off a vehicle in the center lane that swerved toward claimant. Claimant sped up to avoid the swerving vehicle, moved further right and struck a disabled vehicle.

         The ensuing injuries prompted claimant to commence this action and allege, among other things, that defendant negligently designed and maintained the road and failed to adequately monitor the safety impact of a 2003 speed limit increase on the road. The Court of Claims dismissed the claim following a trial on the issue of liability, finding that the claims relating to negligent design and maintenance were barred by qualified immunity and that any deficiencies in monitoring safety on the road were not the proximate cause of claimant's injuries. Claimant now appeals.

         Upon this appeal from a judgment issued after a nonjury trial, we independently review the weight of the evidence, accord due deference to the trial judge's credibility assessments and factual findings and grant the judgment warranted by the record (see Mahoney v State of New York, 147 A.D.3d 1289, 1290 [2017]; Williams v State of New York, 140 A.D.3d 1376, 1377 [2016]). Our review leads us to agree with the Court of Claims that the claim should be dismissed and, as a result, we affirm.

         Defendant has a "duty to keep its roadways in a reasonably safe condition, " but "is afforded 'a qualified immunity from liability arising out of a highway planning decision'" (Turturro v City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 479-480 [2016], quoting Friedman v State of New York, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283 [1986]; see Schroeder v State of New York, 145 A.D.3d 1204, 1204 [2016]). Qualified immunity does not attach where defendant's "study of a traffic condition is plainly inadequate or there is no reasonable basis for its traffic plan, " however, and it falls on defendant to show that its actions resulted from a sufficiently deliberative process (Friedman v State of New York, 67 N.Y.2d at 284; accord Turturro v City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d at 480; see Evans v State of New York, 130 A.D.3d 1352, 1354 [2015], lv denied 26 N.Y.3d 910');">26 N.Y.3d 910 [2015]).

         Claimant cites various alleged deficiencies in the design of Route 7 relating to his assertion that the four-foot wide shoulder where the disabled vehicle was parked was too narrow. Route 7 is a four-lane freeway originally designed for traffic speeds of 70 miles per hour but, due to it being on a prolonged incline, a third "climbing lane" was added in the westbound direction to allow slow vehicles to make their way uphill without posing difficulties for other drivers. The credible proof at trial indicated that the shoulder width reflected the slower vehicles traveling in a climbing lane that was wide enough, in any case, to allow vehicles to pass a disabled vehicle on the shoulder. The record further reveals that the shoulder design was appropriate under the guidelines in place when the road was designed and built [1]. Inasmuch as the shoulder "that was installed met the relevant design standards in effect at the time of its construction, " the Court of Claims properly concluded that defendant cannot be held liable for that design (Schwartz v New York State Thruway Auth., 61 N.Y.2d 955, 956 [1984]; see Light v State of New York, 250 A.D.2d 988, 989 [1998], lv denied 92 N.Y.2d 807');">92 N.Y.2d 807 [1998]).

         We further agree with defendant that the remaining failings on its part, assuming that they existed, were not the proximate cause of claimant's injuries. Claimant asserted that defendant was negligent in raising the speed limit on Route 7 from 55 to 65 miles per hour in 2003 without adequate study and then failing to monitor the safety of the road with the higher speed limit. Claimant testified, however, that he was traveling between 55 and 65 miles per hour when the accident occurred, the prevailing speed on Route 7 even before the speed limit was increased. The police report did not cite speed as a factor in the accident which, in fact, resulted from the unexpected actions of other drivers and claimant following the pickup truck so closely that he could not see the disabled vehicle in front of the truck and react as needed. Claimant accordingly failed to show how the circumstances leading to the accident were in any way "a normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by... defendant's [purported] negligence" in raising the speed limit and failing to monitor traffic safety (Derdiarian v Felix Contr. Corp., 51 N.Y.2d 308, 315 [1980]; accord Turturro v City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d at 484). "Thus, even if [claimant] had shown that defendant had breached a duty with regard to the speed limit or [subsequent safety monitoring], there was no showing that such a breach was a proximate cause of the accident" (Lindquist v County of Schoharie, 126 A.D.3d 1096, 1101 [2015]; see Canals v Tilcon N.Y., Inc., 135 A.D.3d 683, 684-685 [2016]; Rodriguez v City of New York, 259 A.D.2d 280, 280 [1999]).

         Claimant's remaining contentions have been examined and ...


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