Emergency doctrine rejected in multiple car accident case


Emergency doctrine rejected in multiple car accident case: Court grants summary judgment

Joanna Debates v. Joseph Mangini; J.F. Carollo-Mangini; and Lester Feuerstein, Index No. 151826/2023 (Sup. Ct. Richmond Cty. Feb. 28, 2024)

Finding no evidence of an emergency, a Staten Island court granted summary judgment in favor of two drivers involved in a three-car collision.

The action involved a three-car chain reaction collision, in which one co-defendant, Mangini, “rear ended” the other co-defendant, Feuerstein, who in turn “rear ended” the plaintiff. According to affidavits, the plaintiff was stopped at a red light for approximately 30 seconds when, suddenly and without any warning, his vehicle was struck in the rear by the Co-Defendant Feuerstein’s vehicle. Plaintiff felt only one impact, and Feuerstein’s vehicle had been struck in the rear by Co-Defendant Mangini’s vehicle. Feuerstein’s affidavit stated that, on the date of the accident, he was stopped at the red light for approximately 20 seconds when, suddenly and without any warning, Defendant Mangini’s vehicle struck the rear of his vehicle. Plaintiff sued and ultimately filed a motion for summary judgment. Co-Defendant Feuerstein also moved for summary judgment against Mangini.

In opposition to plaintiff’s motion, Co-Defendant Mangini submitted an affidavit and affirmed that the Plaintiff and the insured stopped “suddenly and unexpectedly”. He claimed he was unable to avoid colliding with the vehicles in front of him due to oncoming traffic to his left and parked vehicles to his right. With no other option, he collided with the rear of Defendant Feuerstein’s vehicle, which then collided with the rear of Plaintiff’s vehicle.
New York Supreme Court Justice Paul Marrone, Jr. granted both motions in their entirety and dismissed all claims asserted against Co-Defendant Feuerstein.

Initially, Justice Marrone’s decision dealt with an important evidentiary issue. Plaintiff and Defendant Feuerstein had both submitted certified copies of a police report which Co-Defendant objected to as containing inadmissible hearsay. Pursuant to CPLR 4518 (a), a police accident report is admissible as a business record so long as the report is made based upon the officer’s personal observations and while carrying out police duties. The court found that the report offered in support of the motions was not based upon the responding officer’s personal observations, but rather upon others’ hearsay statements made to him. The court determined that no exception to the hearsay rule applied, as none of the statements had been made under a business duty, or were admissions or declarations against interest. Consequently, the police report was inadmissible.

Having excluded the police report, the Court proceeded to the substance based upon the affidavits submitted by Plaintiff and Defendant Feuerstein which described the chain reaction collision. Under New York law, a rear-end collision with a stopped or stopping vehicle establishes a prima facie case of negligence on the part of the operator of the rear vehicle, requiring that operator to rebut the inference of negligence with evidence of a non-negligent explanation for the collision.

The Court held that Co-Defendant Mangini failed to meet this burden. His claim that Plaintiff and Defendant Feuerstein made sudden stops was insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether they negligently contributed to the collisions. Evidence of a sudden stop of the lead vehicle can establish a non-negligent explanation for a rear-end collision. However, vehicle stops which are foreseeable under the prevailing traffic conditions must be anticipated by the driver who follows, since he or she is under a duty to travel at a safe speed and to maintain a safe distance between his or her vehicle and the vehicle ahead. The record showed that Mangini was not moving at a safe speed and did not keep a reasonable distance.

The Court also rejected Co-Defendants affirmative defense under New York’s emergency doctrine. Under this doctrine, “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”. Justice Marrone held that the emergency doctrine does not apply to typical accidents involving rear-end collisions, because, again, trailing drivers are required to leave a reasonable distance between their vehicles and vehicles ahead pursuant to the Vehicle and Traffic Laws 1129(a). Had Mangini been traveling at a safe distance behind Feuerstein, and moving at a safe rate of speed, he could have avoided the impact. Thus, the emergency doctrine did not apply. Similarly, allegations that the movants had made sudden stops did not raise an issue of fact on comparative negligence. “Even if Plaintiff accelerated towards the intersection before braking, as Defendant Mangini contended in his affidavit, such an action could not have been so sudden that avoidance of colliding with Defendant Feuerstein was impossible.”

Finally, the Court rejected arguments that both motions are premature without completion of discovery. There had been no showing that discovery may lead to relevant evidence.

AGF&J Associate Altea Costanza DiStefano briefed and argued the motion on behalf of Co-Defendant Feuerstein.