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No Immunity in New York for City during Preliminary Stages of Traffic Study

Car Accidents

Sometimes a city or another government entity is at fault for a person’s injuries, but suing the government can be complicated. Whether a city can be held liable often depends on the nature of the act or omission that caused the injury. The city is “immune” from liability for actions taken for the protection and safety of the public, or “governmental functions.” If the city is engaged in activities that would traditionally be performed by private enterprises, it is engaged in “proprietary functions” and may be sued for negligence like any other party. New York case law has held that the planning, design, and maintenance of roads are generally proprietary functions. However, the city has qualified immunity for highway planning decisions relating to roadway safety. This issue recently arose in a case involving a pedestrian struck by a bicycle.

The plaintiff was injured when she was struck by a bicyclist in a designated bicycle lane. The Department of Transportation placed safety barrels in the area, upgraded the crosswalks, and trimmed the bushes within two weeks of the incident. It made additional changes about six months later.

The plaintiff argued the city was negligent in designing and maintaining the roadway. She also argued the city was negligent because it had not conducted proper safety studies or implemented remedial measures. She argued that the nine previous incidents on that street had given the city actual notice of the dangerous condition.

The city argued it was immune from liability because it was conducting a study on the roadway at the time of the incident. To show it is entitled to qualified immunity for highway planning decisions, the city must show it had use a “deliberative decision-making process” to make the decision in question. This process involves obtaining data and using the expertise of qualified personnel. The city must also show it had considered and decided on the question of risk that would be in front of the jury. If the city meets this burden, the plaintiff must then show that the city was aware of a dangerous condition and failed to adequately study it to identify appropriate remedial measures or that its traffic plan did not have a reasonable basis.

The city did not deny having notice of a dangerous condition on the road. A Borough Commissioner of the department of transportation testified a task force had been formed to study how to make the street safer in response to a pedestrian being hit by a bicyclist while crossing the street. The task force had a couple of meetings and discussed concerns and possible solutions. The Commissioner testified he had not talked to traffic safety experts, highway or civil engineers, or outside consultants before the plaintiff’s incident.

The court found the city had not, at the time of the incident, passed on the questions of risk that would go to the jury because the study was still in its preliminary stages. The Commissioner had testified the task force had not studied whether barrels, markings, and signs should have been placed on the road, or their location. The court found the city was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The court also found the city had not shown that its failure to put up warning signs and barrels and to trim the hedges had resulted from a “deliberative decision-making process. “ The court noted the city’s failure to engage experts suggested a “lack of a genuine deliberative process.”

Because the city was not entitled to immunity, the court denied its motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff will be able to move forward with her case.

If you’ve been seriously hurt in an accident, you need an experienced New York accident attorney on your side. The Law Offices of Marc S. Albert can help you identify all potential responsible parties. Call us at 1.855.252.3788 to talk about your case.

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