Passenger Injured When Car Skids Off Road During Snowstorm

Was Drive Liable or Exonerated From Liability For Negligence?

Most of the facts that surrounded the happening of a single vehicle accident were not disputed. Yvette Fall, a passenger, Ryan Detomi, the driver, and three other occupants of a 2007 Kia Sorento were all students at Cazenovia College which is located near Syracuse, New York. The accident occurred just after midnight on the morning of April 7, 2018. The night before the accident four of the five occupants performed in a theatrical production of the play “Rent” at the College, the fifth occupant was in the audience. After the performance, the five occupants traveled together in the vehicle to a party. They left the college at around 10 P.M. and arrived at the party at 10:30 or 11:00 P.M. At his deposition Ryan Detomi testified that when he got in his vehicle after the show it was “snowing, [with] very close to white-out conditions.”  And testified that it took him approximately 20 minutes to drive to the party. As they traveled to the party the weather was “mixed precipitation” and the road was “pitch black.” On his route the speed limit varied between 30 MPH to 55 MPH but Detomi drove at an approximate speed of 15 to 20 because of the weather conditions. The group reached the party safely.

The same group of passengers left the party at approximately 12:40 A.M. By that time the snow had been falling for several hours, and the storm had intensified. Fall sat in the back seat of the vehicle and admittedly did not engage her seat belt. Detomi drove the same route that he took to the party, in the reverse direction. The accident occurred on “Bingley Road” which Detomi described as a “country road” with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Detomi testified that he consistently maintained a speed of 15 to 20 MPH up to and including the time of the accident. The road from the party to the site of the accident was entirely downhill. Detomi engaged the “four-wheel drive” option available in his vehicle due to the weather conditions. He testified that he could not see the roadway as it was covered in snow, sleet and ice, and had a difficult time seeing more than ten feet ahead of him due to the falling snow. After traveling approximately one mile from the party the occupants of the vehicle observed an uninvolved vehicle stuck in a ditch on the side of a curve in the road. At least one of the passengers in the car believed that the stranded vehicle may have belonged to a cast member who left the party earlier. The occupants discussed whether they should stop and decided they should. Detomi engaged his breaks in an attempt to stop to assist the stranded cast member and began to pull over. He admitted that at or around that time Fall asked him to slow down. As he attempted to slow down his breaks “rattled under his foot” and his vehicle began to “fishtail.” Detomi then lost control of his vehicle as it slid off the roadway, through a ditch and into an embankment, causing it to roll over onto its side. Litigation ensued.

Three nonparty witnesses3 were deposed during discovery. The transcripts of their testimony were offered in opposition to Fall’s motion for summary judgment. Each of those witnesses were passengers in the Detomi’s vehicle at the time of the accident. Each non-party witness recalled the accident in a slightly different manner. However, the only significant difference between their testimony and the testimony of Fall and Detomi was the weather conditions on the way to the party. Two of the passengers testified that the weather conditions on the way to the party were relatively clear while Fall and Detomi both testified that it was snowing heavily. All three non-party witnesses agreed that the weather was significantly worse on the return trip. The nonparty witnesses also agreed that Detomi’s speed ranged between 5 and 25 miles per hour as they traveled back to the college campus. Motion practice followed.

The mere occurrence of a motor vehicle accident does not automatically require a finding of negligence, as there may be a non-negligent explanation for the happening of an accident. The standard of care applicable to the operator of a motor vehicle is that which a reasonably prudent person would do under similar circumstances. A triable issue of fact may exist concerning the reasonableness of a driver’s conduct even when an accident occurs. 

Under the unique circumstances of this single vehicle accident, Fall failed to meet her initial burden of establishing an entitlement to summary judgment as a matter of law. In support of her motion, Fall made general allegations that Detomi was negligent for driving in the weather conditions that existed on the morning of April 7, 2018. In sum and substance, Fall alleged that the very act of driving was negligent because the lighting was dark, it was snowing heavily, and the roadway was very slippery and covered in snow. However, negligence could not be inferred against Detomi simply because he and his passengers (including Fall) made the choice to drive home during a snowstorm.

Fall further alleged that it was negligent to attempt to pull over to check on the wellbeing of their castmate, but that too could not establish negligence as a matter of law, and a finding to the contrary would certainly be against public policy. Finally, Fall alleged a violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §1180(a) which provides that “no person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.”

A proven violation of VTL §1180(a) would require a finding that Detomi was negligent as a matter of law. However, Plaintiff Fall failed to prove that Detomi violated the statue by operating his vehicle at an excessive rate of speed. The motion record established that the speed limit on Bingley Road where the accident occurred was 55 miles per hour. However, Detomi testified that he was traveling 15-20 miles per hour and there was no evidence in the record to the contrary. The non-party witnesses’ testimony placed Detomi’s speed in that range. And Fall could not recall his speed.  So it could not be said, as a matter of law, that driving 15-20 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone, was not a reasonable reduction in speed to account for the weather conditions, regardless of whether an accident occurred. Detomi’s inability to avoid an accident, standing alone, could not serve as evidence that his speed was unreasonable. 

Under the unique circumstances of this case, Fall failed to meet her initial burden of establishing that Detomi was negligent as a matter of law.8). Accordingly, Fall’s motion was denied without having to consider whether Detomi’s opposition papers were sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact.  However, if the Court were had considered Detomi’s papers, it would find that they were sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether his actions were reasonably prudent under the circumstances. It was a question of fact for a jury to determine whether Detomi’s speed on the snowy roadway violated section 1180(a) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court was constrained to consider the facts in a light most favorable to Detomi, the non-moving party, and the Court’s role was to find issues of fact, not resolve them.

In addition to seeking an Order granting summary judgment on the issue of liability Fall further moved to strike the affirmative defenses of comparative negligence and the emergency doctrine. That aspect of the motion was granted. There was no evidence in the motion record that Fall, Plaintiff, a back seat passenger, could be comparatively negligent as a cause of the accident. The emergency doctrine was equally inapplicable. The emergency doctrine states that when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, that actor may not be liable for negligence if his or her actions are reasonable and prudent when evaluated in the emergency context. While on first glace it appeared that the doctrine might apply to the circumstances of this case, it is well established that such a defense may not be used in relation to snow and ice when the driver of a motor vehicle is aware of inclement weather. Even considering the evidence in a light most favorable to Detomi, the presence of ice and snow on a hill could not be deemed a sudden and unexpected emergency in light of the ongoing storm. Moreover, to the extent that Detomi made a novel argument that the presence of a vehicle in distress could serve as a qualifying emergency, the testimony in the motion record revealed that he and his passengers had a discussion, and openly deliberated whether they should stop to assist their stranded cast member before deciding that they should. The emergency doctrine was only applicable if there was little or no time for thought, or deliberation, and an actor must make a “split second” decision. Such was not the case here. Although the affirmative defenses identified by Fall were stricken, the Court admonished Fall that nothing in the decision should be construed to preclude Detomi from offering a full defense on the issue of liability i.e., whether another party was negligent.

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