Trooper's actions did not constitute reckless disregard and Claimant's injuries were the result of his own reckless conduct. Claim dismissed.
|Claimant short name:||POLIDORI|
|Footnote (claimant name) :|
|Defendant(s):||THE STATE OF NEW YORK|
|Footnote (defendant name) :|
|Judge:||RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK|
|Claimant's attorney:||JOHN M. REGAN, JR., ESQ.|
|Defendant's attorney:||HON. BARBARA D. UNDERWOOD
New York State Attorney General
BY: THOMAS G. RAMSAY, ESQ.
Assistant Attorney General
|Third-party defendant's attorney:|
|Signature date:||September 18, 2018|
|See also (multicaptioned case)|
Mr. Anton Polidori filed claim number 122593 April 5, 2013, alleging that his motorcycle was damaged when a New York State Trooper negligently ran him off the road during a police chase on July 29, 2012. I conducted the video-assisted trial of this matter on June 21, 2018.
The parties agree that, at the time of the incident, Claimant was driving his motorcycle, a 2008 Suzuki GSXR 750, on Route 104 West to Route 590 South and merged onto the exit ramp for Empire Boulevard. However, the account of the incident from the Claimant and the Defendant's witness, New York State Trooper Jason Sears, are very different from one another.
Claimant testified that, on the day of the incident, he was in Ontario, New York, operating heavy equipment while helping a friend build a garage. He left Ontario, New York around 10:00 p.m. on his motorcycle. Claimant testified he was traveling on Route 104 West over the Irondequoit Bay Bridge and continued onto Route 590 South. Claimant noted that the posted speed limit on both Route 104 West and Route 590 South is 55 miles per hour and that it was a clear summer night.
Claimant testified that he was traveling in the center lane on Route 590 South when he noticed police lights behind him. He attempted to move to the right lane and was pushed off the road and onto the gravel shoulder by a dark colored car to his left - possibly an older Honda Accord - but Claimant noted he never made physical contact with the car. Claimant also noted the Trooper was right behind him when he was being pushed off the road by the dark-colored car, but he was more concerned about being pushed off the road than he was concerned about the Trooper. The dark colored car eventually moved into the left lane, allowing Claimant to move away from the gravel shoulder and back into the right-hand travel lane. Claimant testified that, since he observed the Trooper's lights were still on behind him, he then again accelerated his motorcycle and headed towards the Empire Boulevard exit to pull off Route 590 and safely pull off the road,. Claimant's testimony indicated that he knew he was speeding and that Trooper Sears was trying to pull him over. Claimant stated that he believed the exit ramp would be a safer place to pull over than Route 590, so he got off the expressway on the Empire Boulevard exit intending to pull over.
Claimant described the Empire Boulevard exit as an "S" curve, that begins as one lane but widens into three lanes at the bottom where it intersects with Empire Boulevard. Claimant stated the Trooper's vehicle passed his motorcycle at the very beginning of the exit and sped past him, traveling to the very end of the exit ramp and stopping his car in the "middle of the exit," but at an angle. Claimant went on to testify, however, that at the end of the exit, he was still traveling 25-30 miles per hour, close enough to the Trooper's vehicle that when the Trooper stopped, Claimant had to swerve to avoid colliding with him. As a result, the Claimant's motorcycle hit the curb, causing it to stop abruptly, launching him off the motorcycle 30 to 40 feet in the air into a grassy area, landing near a light pole.
Claimant inspected the damage to his motorcycle, which he characterized as a "total loss." The damage to the motorcycle he observed included the following: bent handlebars; bent brake levers; an oil puddle underneath the bike; and front body work damage. Claimant noted when he was entering onto the exit ramp he was only going 25 to 30 miles per hour. Claimant stated that he is an experienced motorcycle rider and has been riding them since he was eight years old. Further, Claimant testified that he was experienced in repairing motorcycles and estimated a fair selling price of his motorcycle before the incident as $15,000.00.
The Defendant's only witness was New York State Trooper Jason Sears (Trooper Sears), who was the officer attempting to pull the Claimant over on the night of the incident. Trooper Sears stated that he has been with the New York State Police for 15 years. On the night of the incident, July 29, 2012, Trooper Sears was on road patrol and was running radar in a u-turn area on Route 104 West next to the Bay Road exit, just east of the Irondequoit Bay Bridge. Trooper Sears stated he observed the Claimant on his motorcycle traveling towards him and he activated the radar, which gave him a return reading of 87 miles per hour. Trooper Sears put his Ford Crown Victoria into drive and went to catch up to the Claimant and his motorcycle. When Trooper Sears caught up to the Claimant, he again activated the radar which gave him a return reading of 110 miles per hour. Trooper Sears then turned on his emergency lights, and commenced pursuit. Trooper Sears explained he doesn't engage his emergency lights right away so he can run the registration and get a description of the driver and vehicle, just in case the driver flees. He would then have information to put out over the radio to inform law enforcement in the area.
Trooper Sears testified that Claimant looked over his shoulder, observed him and his activated emergency lights, and sped up. Trooper Sears noted that the Ford Crown Victoria he was driving has a maximum speed of between 120 and 125 miles per hour, and the Claimant's motorcycle could easily outrun his vehicle by at least 60 miles per hour. Trooper Sears stated that there were about three to five additional vehicles on the road who complied with his emergency lights and moved towards the right. When these vehicles moved to the right, it caused Claimant to slow down to maneuver through the cars, resulting in Trooper Sears overtaking Claimant and moving in front of him. Trooper Sears was traveling in the left lane when he decided the pursuit was too dangerous, intending to let Claimant go, because in his judgment, Claimant was not going to slow down. Trooper Sears abruptly, but he felt safely, merged across three lanes onto the Empire Boulevard exit ramp, assuming Claimant was going to continue straight on Route 590 South.
Trooper Sears testified Claimant followed him off the Empire Boulevard exit and onto the ramp going 80 to 100 miles per hour, and in his judgment, Claimant was not going to be able to stop at the traffic light at the end of the off ramp, so Trooper Sears left his lights on and got in the center lane of the three-lane ramp, just short of the intersection, to warn oncoming traffic. Exhibit A, an aerial view of the intersection in question, has the letter "X" marking the spot where the Trooper stopped his vehicle, perpendicular to the intersection, so he could see any oncoming traffic from either direction. Trooper Sears witnessed Claimant attempting to make a sharp right-hand turn onto Empire Boulevard, which resulted in Claimant hitting a curb and flying off his motorcycle into the air. Moreover, Trooper Sears observed damage to the Claimant's motorcycle. Trooper Sears noted that the entire incident occurred within a matter of minutes.
I note that the parties agree that, at the time of the incident, Trooper Sears was operating an "emergency vehicle" and engaged in an "emergency operation," as those terms are defined by the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Consequently, the protections of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 apply, meaning that Defendant can only be held liable if it is determined that Trooper Sears acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others (Riley v County of Broome, 95 NY2d 455 ).
I note that, despite Claimant's counsel's efforts to demonstrate that Trooper Sears acted recklessly with regard to the speed at which he followed Claimant and the manner in which he cut over three lanes of traffic to take the Empire Boulevard exit, and allegedly coming close to hitting Claimant as he did so, these actions were not causally related to the accident. Even if these assertions were true, there was no evidence that Trooper Sears acted recklessly, or even negligently with regard to his actions at the bottom of the Empire Boulevard exit ramp, which is where the accident occurred.
The parties are in agreement that Trooper Sears passed Claimant's motorcycle at the very beginning of the Empire Boulevard exit. By all accounts, Trooper Sears passed Claimant's motorcycle at the top of the exit ramp, proceeded a minimum of several hundred yards and stopped in the middle of the ramp at the intersection of the ramp and Empire Boulevard. The Trooper's testimony, that he stopped his car perpendicular to Empire Boulevard so that he could see traffic in both directions, was both more logical and more credible than Claimant's account that Trooper Sears stopped his vehicle at an angle forcing him onto the curb. I find Trooper Sears testimony more credible than Claimant's in this regard for several reasons.
First, although Claimant's theory is that Trooper Sears cut him off and forced him into the curb, I note that the intersection of the exit ramp and Empire Boulevard at that point (Exhibit A) is greater than three lanes wide. There was simply no way for the Trooper's vehicle to completely block Claimant's motorcycle from going around him and onto Empire Boulevard if he had chosen to do so. Therefore, the only way Claimant's theory makes sense is if his motorcycle and the Trooper's vehicle were so close at the time of the accident that Claimant had no time to react to the Trooper's car stopping in front of him. Indeed, Claimant testified to this. This, however, would create more problems than it would solve for the Claimant.
Claimant testified that at the top of the exit ramp, he was going only about 30 miles per hour and Trooper Sears passed him at a far greater rate of speed, proceeded to the end of the ramp and stopped. The only way for Claimant to have been close enough to the Trooper's vehicle at the end of the ramp is if he matched the Trooper's speed the entire length of the ramp. This is not consistent with Claimant's testimony.
Claimant testified that he was going to stop for Trooper Sears on Route 590 but decided to go onto the Empire Boulevard exit and stop there, as he thought it would be safer. I note that although the specific length of the exit ramp between 590 and Empire Boulevard was not presented to the Court, exhibit A demonstrates that the exit ramp is of significant length, which Claimant's own counsel described as a "couple hundred yards." Claimant testified that he entered the ramp intending to stop for Trooper Sears, and yet, in those hundreds of yards, he did not stop or slow anywhere on the ramp and was still traveling at a significant speed at the very end of the ramp where it intersects with Empire Boulevard and where Claimant impacted the curb. Had Claimant been intending to stop as he testified he would not have gone to the end of the exit ramp and certainly wouldn't have been traveling at a rate of speed sufficient to launch him 30 to 40 feet in the air after his impact with the curb. Indeed, the only reason for Claimant to still be traveling at 30 miles an hour, or at any speed of consequence at the very end of the exit ramp where the accident occurred, is if his intent was not to stop, but to proceed onto Empire Boulevard.
I find that Trooper Sears' actions with regard to Claimant's accident were neither reckless nor negligent. I also find no causal connection between Trooper Sears' actions and Claimant's accident. I find that Claimant's own reckless conduct was the sole proximate cause of his accident and the resulting damage to his motorcycle. Therefore, I find that Claimant has failed to demonstrate his right to relief.
Accordingly, the claim in this matter is dismissed in its entirety.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
September 18, 2018
Rochester, New York
RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Judge of the Court of Claims