The City of New York hired a contractor to repair a seam in the roadway of the northbound lanes of traffic on the West Side Highway. The City and the contractor developed a plan as to how the work was to be performed and the safety measures to be undertaken for closing lanes of traffic. At the time of the accident, the left and center lanes of the northbound side of the West Side Highway were closed, leaving only the right lane available for passing traffic.
While work was being performed, a two-car accident occurred approximately 200 feet south of the taper where the lanes of traffic merged. No changes to the lane closure set up were made following the accident, and work resumed on the roadway. Approximately two hours later, while the left two lanes of traffic were still closed, a five-car pileup occurred in the area of the earlier accident. A taxi that was merging from the left to center lane was rear-ended by a vehicle in the left lane. The front vehicle, in turn, struck the car in front of him in the center lane. Following the collisions, the motorists exited their respective vehicles and were standing in the roadway. A fourth vehicle coming over a blind hill in the road tried to stop but rear-ended the stopped vehicles. The driver of the fourth vehicle exited his vehicle to exchange insurance information and was struck and knocked to the ground when a fifth vehicle rear-ended his vehicle. The driver of the fourth vehicle sued the City, its contractor, and the driver of the fifth vehicle for negligence.
The plaintiff (driver of the fourth vehicle) suffered severe injuries to his legs, knees, pelvis, shoulder, and ribs, including fractures of the tibia, fibula, and numerous tears of the ligaments supporting both knees, requiring that he spent three weeks in a hospital. The plaintiff was told that he needed to undergo five surgeries to stabilize his knees. Following the first surgery, he was transferred to a nursing home for rehabilitation. Following the removal of his casts, his legs were swollen and severely declined in usage. He was fitted with braces and had to relearn how to walk. Plaintiff underwent further surgery on his left knee and on his right knee. Two years later, he underwent further surgery on the left knee. Following each surgery, he was required to resume the use of braces and to re-start physical therapy.
Plaintiff continues to require anti-inflammatories and pain medication. Over the course of his life, he will require four total knee replacement surgeries, two on each leg. Plaintiff, who was 41 at the time of the accident, will suffer pain in his knees for the rest of his life due to the extent of his injuries.
At trial, plaintiffs' expert testified that the manner in which the lanes had been closed was unsafe and deviated from standard practices. Using the City and contractor’s safety plan, he said the minimum standards for a two-lane closure on a three-lane highway consisted of multiple and specific signs of the impending lane closures prior to the narrowing of the roadway, including “roadwork one mile,” “left two lanes closed one half mile,” “left two lanes closed 1500 feet,” and an arrow board directing drivers to merge; as well as lighted barrels marking the lane closures. Plaintiffs' expert further testified that because defendants failed to comply with these standards, drivers were forced to suddenly, and without warning, merge to the right lane.
Following a six-week trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiffs and against the City and the contractor, finding the City to be 65% responsible and the contractor to be 35% responsible for plaintiff's injuries. The jury awarded the injured driver $2.2 million for past pain and suffering and $3.8 million for future pain and suffering. Plaintiff’s wife was awarded $700,000 for past loss of services and $425,000 for future loss of services and consortium.
The defendants appealed. The appellate court held that the verdict was not against the weight of evidence. Both the City and the contractor owed the plaintiff a duty of care. The City has a duty to keep its roadways in a reasonably safe condition. There was evidence that the contractor’s narrowing of the roadway, without properly warning, created a dangerous condition. The appellate court also held that the awards for past and future pain and suffering were not unreasonable awards given plaintiff’s injuries. Finally, the appellate court found that the award for past and future loss of services and society to plaintiff’s wife was reasonable, as she essentially became solely responsible for managing the household, caring for their children, and tending to the plaintiff’s basic needs following his accident.
The appellate court, however, did find that the apportionment of fault to the City was against the weight of evidence. It directed the case to be remanded for a new trial only on the apportionment of fault between the City and the contractor.
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