Who Was At Fault Where Both Violated the Law?
A large part of our tort liability jurisprudence addresses the threshold question of “fault”. But, as a recent automobile collision case illustrates, the “fickle finger of fault” may point in both directions.
Two cars collided in the westbound right lane of Montauk Highway in Copaigue, New York. Just prior to the accident, Diana Lopez was exiting a parking lot with her vehicle half on the apron and half in the right lane in order to cross over Montauk Highway and make a left turn. Christopher Ceravino was traveling westbound on Montauk Highway in the left lane at 30 miles per hour when, from 150-200 feet away, he first noticed Lopez’s vehicle between the apron of the parking lot and the right lane of Montauk Highway. Ceravino did not stop his vehicle, but, instead, moved into the right lane and ultimately struck the Lopez vehicle. The jury found that Lopez was negligent and that her negligence was a proximate cause of the accident and that Ceravino was not negligent. The County Court granted Lopez’s motion to set aside the verdict as against the weight of the evidence. Ceravino appealed.
A jury verdict should not be set aside as against the weight of the evidence unless the verdict could not have been reached upon any fair interpretation of the evidence. Did the County Court properly set aside the verdict?
Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1143 provides that “[t]he driver of a vehicle about to enter or cross a roadway from any place other than another roadway shall yield the right of way to all vehicles approaching on the roadway to be entered or crossed”. A violation of the VTL constitutes negligence as a matter of law. There was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Lopez entered Montauk Highway into the right lane and failed to yield the right of way to all vehicles approaching. Thus, the jury’s verdict finding Lopez negligent was supported by the evidence.
But hold on! There can be more than one proximate cause of an accident because each driver had a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to avoid an accident. And the evidence revealed that Ceravino was driving in the left lane at 30 miles per hour on Montauk Highway when he saw Lopez’s vehicle in the right lane of Montauk Highway from 150-200 feet away. And it was uncontroverted that Lopez never entered the left lane that Ceravino had been traveling in but that Ceravino moved into the right lane where he had seen the Lopez vehicle. Given the evidence presented at the trial, the jury verdict finding that Ceravino was not negligent did not rest upon a fair interpretation of the credible evidence.
Contrary to Ceravino’s argument, the record did not support his contention that he was in a situation where he was faced with an emergency and had only seconds to react to the Lopez vehicle.
A new trial was ordered.