New York Court Rejects Use of Emergency Doctrine in Fatal Pedestrian Accident Case – Lifson v. City of Syracuse

By October 20, 2011 Auto Accidents, Wrongful Death

As a Missouri motor vehicle accident lawyer, I believe pedestrian accidents are among the most destructive crashes. Unlike crashes between two vehicles, pedestrian crashes involve at least one person who is totally unprotected by a steel cage or any safety device — and almost always involve a driver who had a legal obligation to yield to pedestrians. In Lifson v. City of Syracuse and Derek Klink, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, rejected a defense raised by a driver who hit a pedestrian as she crossed a pedestrian-heavy street. Driver Derek Klink hit Irene Lifson as she crossed the street, killing her. Lifson’s family sued, and Klink benefited at trial from jury instructions to consider the emergency doctrine — whether Klink behaved prudently in an emergency not of his own making. He was found not liable, but the New York high court found that the emergency doctrine instruction was in error.
Lifson and Klink both worked in the same Syracuse office tower, which lies across the street from a parking garage. Klink said he was unfamiliar with the area, however, when he pulled out of the garage on the day of the crash. He testified that he waited until he thought pedestrians had cleared the road before turning left, and when he glanced to the left again, he was blinded by the sun. When his vision cleared, he said, he saw Lifson too late to stop his car. Lifson’s family sued. At Klink’s request and over the objections of the Lifsons, the court instructed the jury to consider the emergency doctrine, which asked the jury to decide whether Klink faced an emergency not of his making and, if so, whether he responded in a reasonably prudent way. If it found both to be true, it would find no liability for Klink. This is ultimately what happened; the jury found Lifson 85% at fault and the city of Syracuse 15% at fault. The appellate division of New York’s courts affirmed the ruling, finding that the sun blinding could reasonably be found a sudden and unforeseen occurrence. A dissenter to that case argued that the sun glare was not an emergency because it could reasonably have been anticipated. The Lifsons appealed.
The New York Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing that Klink’s situation did not rise to the level of an emergency. It likened the case to Caristo v. Sanzone, a 2001 case in which a car slid downhill during icy weather and hit another vehicle. In that case, the high court reversed an emergency doctrine finding, saying the bad weather conditions had existed for at least two hours, and thus could not be considered “sudden and unexpected.” Similarly, the court found that it cannot be considered sudden and unexpected to be blinded by the sun while driving west at sunset. Klink was moderately familiar with the area, the court noted. Furthermore, the court found the error not harmless, because it permitted the jury to consider the evidence under a standard very favorable to Klink. Thus, it remanded the case to trial court. Judge Smith dissented, arguing that while the sun reliably sets in the west, drivers should not be required to always keep sunset, weather and obstructions in mind.
As a St. Louis auto accident attorney, I do not agree. In fact, I believe most people would agree that it’s completely reasonable to require drivers to keep road conditions in mind, including bad weather, road construction, obstructions on the side of the road and other factors as well as sun glare. All of these factors are easy to anticipate — though the sun is perhaps the easiest, being the main source of natural light for our planet — and common concerns for drivers. Indeed, failing to consider these factors is a failure in the common-law duty to take reasonable care behind the wheel that we all owe to one another. And that common-law duty is the source of lawsuits such as that of the Lifson’s family. A jury might still reduce blame for a driver if a pedestrian runs into traffic unexpectedly, but as a southern Illinois car accident lawyer, I encourage drivers who genuinely cannot see during sunset to find alternative routes.


If you or someone in your family suffered a serious car wreck you believe was caused by someone else’s negligence, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential evaluation of your case, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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