New York Appeals Court Reverses Order in Fatal Car Crash Case

New York’s highest judicial panel has sent back to a trial court the case of a Syracuse motorist who fatally struck a pedestrian, ruling that a judge improperly instructed jurors to consider whether the driver’s claim that he was blinded by the setting sun constituted an emergency—a decision that could have serious implications for the motorist and his car insurance company.

The driver in the case, Derek Klink, had just left work at about 4:05 p.m. on Feb. 29, 2000, when he fatally struck Irene Lifson near the office complex where they both worked.

According to court documents, there was “no evidence that Lifson darted out in front of Klink’s car, or that Klink was traveling at an excessive rate of speed.”

Lifson was struck crossing the street at a point that was not a marked crosswalk but was commonly used by office workers walking to and from a nearby parking garage, according to court documents.

Klink testified that he saw Lifson only a fraction of a second before impact and was unable to avoid hitting her. Klink also claimed that he was temporarily blinded by sun glare when he struck Lifson, who was wearing a red coat.

Plaintiff Alexander Lifson filed a lawsuit against Klink and the city of Syracuse, alleging negligence and failure to properly plan for pedestrian traffic.

Trial Limited to Issue of Liability

Jurors tasked with deciding whether Klink and the city were negligent in Lifson’s death were ordered by a Supreme Court judge in Onondaga County to first determine whether Klink “was in fact confronted with an emergency situation not of his own making” and responded prudently, according to court documents.

Jurors were instructed that they were free to reject the common-law emergency doctrine, according to court documents, but that they must find in Klink’s favor if they found that it applied. Acting on those instructions, jurors found that Lifson was 85 percent at fault in her death and the city of Syracuse was 15 percent to blame.

That left Klink and his car insurance provider free from fault and the requirement to pay any damages.

Court Decides Emergency Doctrine Does Not Apply

An appellate panel upheld the lower court’s decision, but the state’s Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that jurors should not have been instructed to consider the emergency doctrine because it did not apply under the circumstances.

“It is well known, and therefore cannot be considered a sudden and unexpected circumstance, that the sun can interfere with one’s vision as it nears the horizon at sunset,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote in a decision handed down last week. “This is not to say that sun glare can never generate an emergency situation, but, under the circumstances presented, there is no reasonable view of the evidence under which sun glare constitutes a qualifying emergency.”

The high court found that the misapplication of the emergency doctrine resulted in jurors considering Klink’s actions “under an extremely favorable standard.”

The ruling reverses the lower court’s decision and returns the case to Onondaga County for further proceedings.

Klink May Be Found Partially Liable

Since the lower court instructed the jury that it must find in Klink’s favor if it determined that he was in an emergency situation and acted prudently, Klink was cut out of the fault equation.

But because the Court of Appeals found that the “emergency doctrine” was improperly used in this case, Klink may be found to be at least partially liable.

That’s because New York operates under a comparative fault system, meaning drivers’ auto insurance companies must pay for the portion of damages for which their policyholders are responsible. So if any percentage of fault is attributed to Klink, his insurer may have to shell out that percentage of whatever damages the plaintiff is entitled to.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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