New York Court Finds Driver Blinded by Sun Glare May Be Liable in Accident

By | October 20, 2011

New York’s highest court has ruled that a motorist from Syracuse who struck and killed a pedestrian while being distracted by sun glare cannot invoke “emergency doctrine.”

An attentive driver would have anticipated occasional sun glares considering the time of the accident (4:05 pm on a February day), according to the decision by New York State Court of Appeals on Oct. 13.

The high court reversed the lower courts’ ruling. The amended complaint was reinstated and remitted to New York Supreme Court for further proceedings.

Emergency Doctrine

The court documents state that the common-law emergency doctrine “recognizes 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, the actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context, provided the actor has not created the emergency.”

The fatal accident took place on February 29, 2000, near MONY Plaza, a large office complex in Syracuse. There is a substantial amount of pedestrian traffic around the area.

On that day, Derek Klink, the driver, struck Irene Lifson while she was crossing the street near the complex, causing her death.

Plaintiff commenced legal action against Klink and the city of Syracuse, alleging negligence and failure to study/plan for pedestrian traffic. The ensuing trial was limited to the issue of liability.

Klink claimed that the accident occurred while he was temporarily blinded by sun glare, according to court documents. Klink testified that he stopped at the stop sign to make a left turn on a street but that his view of oncoming traffic was partially obstructed by parked cars in the left-hand lane of the street. He had to “creep up” in order to see the approaching vehicles.

Blinded By Sun, ‘All of a Sudden’

He noticed that there were pedestrians crossing the street to his left, but he also asserted that he had looked in that direction and “cleared the road” before making the turn.

He testified that he had been looking to his right, toward the oncoming traffic when he started turning. He maintained that, when he looked back to his left, mid-turn, he was blinded by the sun, “all of a sudden.”

He reacted by looking down and to his right. When he looked up, the first object he saw was Lifson.

Although he applied the brakes, he was unable to avoid hitting her, having seen her only a fraction of a second prior to impact.

Lower Courts Ruled in Driver’s Favor

The trial court instructed the jury on the emergency doctrine in his favor. The jury was instructed that it had to determine whether Klink was in fact confronted with an emergency situation not of his own making and, if so, whether his conduct in response was that of a reasonably prudent person. The jury was free to reject both of those propositions, but if it determined that he had faced an emergency situation and acted reasonably, it was to find for Klink.

The jury returned a verdict attributing negligence to the city of Syracuse and Lifson and apportioning fault at 15 percent and 85 percent, respectively. Klink was found not negligent and the action was dismissed as against him.

The appellate division affirmed, finding that the emergency instruction was properly given, as there was a reasonable view of the evidence showing that the sun glare was a sudden and unforeseen occurrence.

But New York State Court of Appeals disagreed. The high court stated, “We find that, under these circumstances, it was error to give the jury the emergency instruction.”

Sun Glare Should Have Been Expected

The Court of Appeals stated that the driver was about to turn to the west at a time of day that the sun would be setting.

“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, particularly when one is heading west,” the court stated.

“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 case is No. 157, Alexander Lifson, &c.,Appellant, v. City of Syracuse, Defendant, Derek Klink, Respondent, Oct. 13, 2011, New York State Court of Appeals.

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