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July 8, 2020

Liability for a Motor Vehicle Accident Requires More Than a NY V&T Violation

In Holownia v. Caruso, the defendant-driver was in a motor vehicle accident and violated the NY Vehicle and Traffic Law, but the violation was not a substantial factor in causing the accident. The Appellate Division, Third Department recently concluded that, although the defendant-driver was per se negligent for failing to comply with the local speed limit, he wasn’t liable for the plaintiff’s injuries because his negligence didn’t proximately cause the accident.

In this multi-vehicle accident, both defendants were traveling eastbound on the Interstate 84 highway in excess of the posted speed limit. Defendant Caruso was operating a sedan in the left lane when he made a sudden lane change and impacted defendant Page’s tractor-trailer. The impact drove Page’s tractor-trailer off the left lane of the highway across the median and into the westbound lanes of Interstate 84, striking the plaintiff’s vehicle head-on.

Following a bifurcated trial on the issue of liability, the plaintiff moved for a directed verdict against each of the defendants. While the court granted the plaintiff’s motion with respect to the operator of the sedan, it denied the motion with respect to Page. The question of Page’s liability then went to a jury, which found him to be negligent, but that his negligence wasn’t a substantial factor in causing the accident. On appeal, the plaintiff argued it was undisputed that Page was traveling in excess of the speed limit and that Page’s violation of the speed limit constituted negligence per se.

Although Page’s speed limit violation constituted negligence per se, it didn’t equate to liability. The accident was initiated by the co-defendant’s sudden lane change; despite his excessive speed, Page wasn’t operating his tractor-trailer in an erratic manner. Page couldn’t have reasonably anticipated the co-defendant’s sudden lane change, and Page’s attempts to avoid the collision with the plaintiff were compromised by a damaged steering system caused by the initial impact with the co-defendant.

This case underlines the importance of the issue of causation in motor vehicle accident cases. Although NY law directs that a defendant who has violated the NY Vehicle and Traffic Law is per se negligent, the defendant’s negligence must still be found to have proximately caused the accident.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Daniel Coleman, associate, at dcoleman@barclaydamon.com or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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