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Did a Crack in the Road Cause the Accident?

In Johnson v. State of New York, 2006 NY Slip Op 01924, the Fourth Department considered whether the Court of Claims properly determined that the State had failed to adequately maintain the roadway and thus was liable for the automobile accident that caused the claimant's death.

The claimant alleged that as a result of the State's negligent maintenance of the road, there was a crack in the road and faded line markings, and that these defects caused the other driver to veer into the decedent's lane.  However, the driver of that vehicle was unable to recall why he veered into the decedent's lane.

The Court set forth the applicable law as follows:

While the State must maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition ..., the State is not an insurer of the safety of its roads and no liability will attach unless the ascribed negligence of the State in maintaining its roads in a reasonable condition is a proximate cause of the accident. When an automobile swerves and leaves [its lane of travel] for no definitely assignable reason, it is altogether possible that the accident was due to either of several causes, [including] the failure of the steering gear or a lapse on the part of the driver .... In ... such cases the balance of probabilities between causes which entail liability and others which do not is equal enough so that an inference of fact which entails liability is the result of mere speculation.  In final result, it is clear that, if it is just as likely that the accident might have occurred from causes other than a defendant's negligence, the inference that [the defendant's] negligence was [a] proximate cause of the accident may not be drawn. (Internal citations and quotations omitted.)

The Court then concluded that in this case the evidence was legally insufficient to establish that the alleged negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. 


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