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New Legal Standard Places Emphasis On Driver Awareness

As the fall season is upon us, and the winter season approaches, driving can become more hazardous and more accidents can occur. For example, it is not uncommon this time of year to see deer on the road in Staten Island, Westchester, or Upstate New York. In fact, according to statistics recently released, 1 out of 154 drivers in New York will collide with a deer in 2014. And, as the weather gets colder, rain or snowy conditions may cause the road to be slick and dangerous, leading to cars skidding and drivers losing control of their vehicles.

From a legal perspective, it is even more important to stay vigilant as a driver now than in years past. If you are involved in an accident after swerving to avoid a deer, or hitting a patch of black ice, you are not necessarily free from fault. A driver must exercise due care to be aware of his surroundings, and his failure to do so might expose him to liability.

Our office recently defeated a defendant driver's motion to dismiss our client's case, where the defendant claimed that she was not negligent in causing the accident because she lost control of her vehicle when she unexpectedly hit a patch of black ice and skidded out. We were able to prove, using testimony elicited from the defendant and witnesses, that prior to the accident the weather conditions had been worsening and that the defendant knew or should have known that the freezing rain would make the roadway slick.

For nearly a century, New York courts, and the courts of many other states, applied what is known as the Emergency Doctrine. In short, courts would consider the reasonableness of an actor's conduct when confronted with an emergency situation. This doctrine recognized "that when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, that actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent." See Rivera v. New York City Transit Authority, 77 N.Y.2d 322.  However, over the past several years, this long standing legal doctrine has been eroded, modified, and even abolished in some jurisdictions.

Now, in New York, the judge has the role of deciding whether a particular set of circumstances constitutes and emergency. Only when the judge determines that an emergency existed, is the jury asked if the actor's conduct was reasonably prudent in the face of such an emergency. "The emergency instruction [to the jury] is, therefore, properly charged where the evidence supports a finding that the party requesting the charge was confronted by a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little to no time for thought, deliberation or consideration." See Caristo v. Sanzone, 96 N.Y.2d 172.

So, on a day where it is cold and there is snow or freezing rain, if you hit a patch of black ice and are caused to collide with another vehicle, the court may find as a matter of law that no emergency situation existed since you were aware of the worsening conditions, and the existence of ice on the roadway could not be considered a sudden and unexpected occurrence. If no emergency existed, a jury could determine that the accident was entirely your fault.

If you have been involved in a motor vehicle accident and were injured, please contact our office.

See Staten Island Advance

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