Jury Attributed Too Much Fault to Struck Pedestrian in Car Accident Case, Court Holds

walkIn DiDonna v. Houck, a pedestrian-knockdown car accident case decided November 13, 2013, the Appellate Division, Second Department agreed with the trial court that the jury’s finding as to liability was not supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence.

In particular, it found that it attributed too much liability to plaintiff, and too little to defendant.

Plaintiff, a pedestrian, was struck while crossing the street, within a crosswalk, by a vehicle driven by defendant. At the trial on the issue of liability, the jury rendered a verdict finding that the plaintiff was 60% at fault and the defendants were 40% at fault.  

The trial court granted plaintiff’s motion, pursuant to CPLR 4404(a), “to set aside the verdict as contrary to the weight of the evidence and for a new trial, and directed a new trial on the issue of liability unless the parties stipulated to a finding that the plaintiff was 5% at fault in the happening of the accident and that the defendants were 95% at fault.”

The appellate court applied the legal principle that “[a] jury verdict should not be set aside as contrary to the weight of the evidence unless the jury could not have reached the verdict by any fair interpretation of the evidence.”

In this case, the operative statute is Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL) § 1112, entitled “Pedestrian-control signal indications.”  It provides, in part:

[A] pedestrian who proceeds across a roadway in the direction of a steady “walk” signal must be given the right of way by traffic. Additionally, a pedestrian who proceeds into a roadway with a “walk” signal, but only partially completes his or her crossing on the “walk” signal, may proceed to a sidewalk on the flashing or steady “don’t walk” signal.

At trial,

plaintiff testified that he began crossing the street with a “walk” signal, and that he was at least halfway across the street when he was struck by the defendants’ vehicle, which, immediately before striking him, had been stopped at a red light. There was no evidence submitted to contradict the plaintiff’s assertion that he began crossing the street with a “walk” signal. Further, contrary to the defendants’ contention, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was crossing the street anywhere but within the crosswalk. On the other hand, the evidence demonstrated that the defendant Anne P. Houck failed to exercise due care to avoid colliding with the plaintiff [as required by VTL § 1146].

In light of this evidence, the trial court correctly determined that

no fair interpretation of the evidence supported the jury’s finding that the plaintiff was 60% at fault in the happening of the accident while the defendants were 40% at fault, and the jury’s apportionment of liability was, therefore, contrary to the weight of the evidence. The Supreme Court therefore properly granted the plaintiff’s motion pursuant to CPLR 4404(a) to set aside the verdict as contrary to the weight of the evidence and for a new trial, and directed a new trial on the issue of liability unless the parties stipulated to a finding that the plaintiff was 5% at fault in the happening of the accident and that the defendants were 95% at fault.

While the court held that a liability apportionment of 60% to defendant and 40% to plaintiff was not warranted, it did not explain how or why it determined that a 95% / 5% liability split was appropriate.

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