By Vito A. Cannavo, Esq.
Fixed objects left in areas adjacent to highways that are supposed to be kept clear can give rise to liability under New York law. Highways are designed with areas of refuge, such as the shoulder, where troubled vehicles can safely exit the traffic lanes. These areas need to be kept free of obstructions so that they can serve their intended purpose. Injuries occur when a vehicle enters such an area and collides with a piece of machinery, a parked construction vehicle, or some another fixed object improperly left there. In such a case, the party responsible for leaving the object in the area is liable for injuries sustained by the occupants of the vehicle.
The defendant in a case like this will often blame the driver for losing control of the vehicle and veering out of the traffic lane. This approach, however, will not free the defendant from liability. Areas such as highway shoulders are meant to provide not only refuge for disabled vehicles, but also tolerance for drivers’ mistakes. Objects improperly left in these areas frustrate that purpose: to accommodate a driver’s error and to prevent it from causing injury.
For example, in Smalls v. AJI Industries, Inc., 10 N.Y.3d 733, 853 N.Y.S.2d 526, the injured plaintiff was a passenger in a car operated by a novice driver who lost control and collided with a dumpster had been left in a zebra-stripped safety zone where parking was not permitted. The New York State Court of Appeals denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case ruled that despite the driver’s mistake, it was up to a jury to decide whether the owner of the dumpster had improperly obstructed a safety zone.