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Freligh v. Government Employees Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

July 27, 2017

JAMES E. FRELIGH II, Respondent,
v.
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: April 26, 2017

          Thuillez, Ford, Gold, Butler & Monroe, LLP, Albany (Daisy Ford Paglia of counsel), for appellant.

          Basch & Keegan, Kingston (Derek J. Spada of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: McCarthy, J.P., Egan Jr., Rose, Devine and Mulvey, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          McCarthy, J.P.

         Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court (Gilpatric, J.), entered November 16, 2016 in Ulster County, which denied defendant's motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

         On December 23, 2012, plaintiff allegedly sustained various injuries when the vehicle that he was operating was rear-ended by another vehicle. At the time of the accident, plaintiff, who had worked in the automotive parts and repair industry for a number of years, had been unemployed for approximately seven months. In January 2013, plaintiff submitted an application for no-fault benefits to defendant, his insurance carrier. With respect to the lost wages portion of the application, plaintiff indicated that he "was due to start [a] new job" but had been unable to work since December 23, 2012 as a result of the injuries that he had sustained in the accident. Plaintiff further indicated that details regarding his position, including his salary and the employer's name and address, would be provided.

         Plaintiff thereafter provided defendant with a copy of his employment application dated December 15, 2012, which reflected that plaintiff had been offered a job at VW Parts, Inc. (hereinafter the parts business) commencing on January 1, 2013 and at a salary of $2, 000 per week, with benefits. Defendant requested additional documentation in support of plaintiff's claim and, when such claim remained unpaid, plaintiff commenced this action seeking to recover no-fault benefits for the lost wages allegedly sustained. Defendant answered and raised plaintiff's failure to provide proper verification of his claim as an affirmative defense. Following discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint - citing plaintiff's failure to provide proper verification of his claim and asserting that the claim for lost wages was speculative. Supreme Court denied defendant's motion, prompting this appeal. We reverse.

         Insurance Law § 5102 (a) (2) provides that an individual who makes a claim under the no-fault law must be compensated for "[l]oss of earnings from work which the person would have performed had he [or she] not been injured" (see Kurcsics v Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 49 N.Y.2d 451, 458 [1980]). The statutory and regulatory provisions that govern the recovery of lost earnings "contemplate[] a degree of certainty in the calculation of lost wages" (Sharpe v Allstate Ins. Co., 14 A.D.3d 774, 775 [2005]). With respect to the recovery of lost earnings, the Legislature did not intend for plaintiffs to receive windfall recoveries or for insurance carriers to suffer undue financial hardship (see Kurcsics v Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 49 N.Y.2d at 457). Instead, the Legislature intended "to compensate the accident victim for the earnings he or she would have, in fact, realized" (id.). Consistent with this principle, a plaintiff is entitled to "demonstrated future earnings reasonably projected" (11 NYCRR 65-3.16 [b] [3]).

         As an initial matter, we agree with plaintiff and our dissenting colleagues that, on this motion for summary judgment, we must treat as credible plaintiff's testimony and the testimony of William Hrazanek, who was the sole shareholder of the parts business and who allegedly offered plaintiff employment (see Coyle v Bommarito, 106 A.D.3d 1324, 1327 [2013]; Tenkate v Tops Mkts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 987, 989 [2007). Thus, we credit Hrazanek's claims, despite the fact that he admitted, among other things, that (1) he had previously pleaded guilty to the crimes of insurance fraud and offering a false instrument, (2) he had made false sworn statements in regard to the bankruptcy proceeding of a corporation, (3) he had initiated that bankruptcy proceeding as a "ruse" to forestall creditors and (4) he had paid his wife a salary from the parts business while she was a student at Columbia University for her "learning purposes." Even while crediting Hrazanek's and plaintiff's claims, however, the record reveals that their contentions are immaterial to the issue of the reasonableness of plaintiff's alleged projected future earnings as an employee of the parts business. Regardless of the genuineness of Hrazanek's offer of employment, uncontested evidence regarding the parts business and its finances during the relevant time period establish as a matter of law that it is unreasonable to project that, but for plaintiff's accident, the parts business would have actually employed plaintiff at a salary of $2, 000 a week.

         Here, the uncontested evidence established that the parts business was in physical and financial disrepair after Hurricane Irene struck in 2011 and that it remained in such a state at the time that plaintiff allegedly received a job offer and thereafter. Hrazanek testified that the parts business conducted its operations from three different locations - a warehouse, operating offices that were attached to garage bays and a junkyard. According to Hrazanek, the hurricane severely flooded the warehouse and destroyed $4.8 million of inventory held therein. The parts business never resumed operations at the warehouse. At the operating offices, the hurricane flooded cars that were in the yard, washing some away, and destroyed the inventory in the bays. Hrazanek explained that the actual offices and the parts inventory that were stored therein remained unaffected by the hurricane.

         Further, Hrazanek testified that he had hired plaintiff because they had plans to open an automobile repair shop. Defendant made a Freedom of Information Law request to the Town of Middletown, Delaware County - where the parts business was located - in regard to any information indicating that Hrazanek or the parts business had made efforts to open an automobile repair shop. The Town's response established that, between November 2012 and January 2013 - the month that plaintiff was supposed to begin working - neither Hrazanek nor the parts business had submitted any applications for any relevant licences or certificates in regard to operating an automobile repair shop. Thus, despite Hrazanek's claim that the parts business was "basing [its] future on [plaintiff]" in regard to their "plans to open up the [automobile] repair shop, " the uncontested evidence established that plaintiff would not have had any automobile repair shop to run in January 2013 [1]. Hrazanek further acknowledged that he never opened such a repair shop.

         Moreover, as additional evidence of the financial distress of the parts business, Hrazanek acknowledged that it was obligated to pay the lease on the warehouse and the operating offices, and that it ceased to do so after Hurricane Irene. In addition, the parts business's financial records established that it paid three employees in December 2012, the month before plaintiff was allegedly intended to become an employee; Larissa Guselnikova, Hrazanek's wife, was paid $1, 442.31 per week, Bruce Hoornbeek was paid approximately $500 per week and Eric Preisendorfer was paid $1, 325 per week. The records further indicate that as of January 2013, Preisendorfer was the only employee that remained on the payroll, and that the parts business did not pay him or any other employees after that month. A member of defendant's special investigation unit visited the operating offices of the parts business in October 2013 and found the building padlocked and without any employees present. Finally, Hrazanek acknowledged that he sold the parts business in 2014 for $40, 000 [2]. Notably, this transaction indicates that the entire value of the parts business was equal to the value of 20 weeks of plaintiff's projected salary, excluding the costs of plaintiff's benefits and other employer obligations. Therefore, uncontested proof establishes that the parts business was in financial distress at the time that plaintiff was allegedly offered a job and that it ceased operations, at the latest, shortly after plaintiff's anticipated start date.

         Moreover, defendant provided proof that discounted the possibility that, had plaintiff been able to contribute his efforts to the parts business, it would not have failed and he would have received his alleged proposed salary. Defendant submitted evidence regarding plaintiff's demonstrated ability to run an automobile repair business by submitting plaintiff's deposition and certain of his tax returns. According to plaintiff, his most recent employment was owning and operating an automobile repair shop and gas station, which plaintiff explained went out of business due to the "economy." Plaintiff's tax returns provided objective evidence of his lack ...


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