Even when everyone does everything right, accidents still happen; that's when safety needs to be questioned. A ruling in New York sets a precedent.

Judge says that responsibility for a fatal crash at a poorly designed intersection is state's fault

Road safety is everyone’s responsibility: yours for respecting the limitations and the state’s for making and keeping the grid safe. When safety fails and a crash occurs, in many cases, one of the people involved is usually to blame. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, when everyone involved did everything right, we have to look higher up for answers and accountability. A ruling in New York is holding the state responsible for a fatal crash.

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The accident happened in 2003 in Wayne County in northern New York State. Wayne Brown and his wife Linda were cruising northbound on Route 350 (Ontario Center Road) on their Harley-Davidson toward the intersection at Paddy Lane. As the Browns approached the intersection Henry Friend, who had been stopped at a stop sign on Paddy Lane, pulled into the intersection believing that the coast was clear. The Browns entered the intersection at speed and t-boned Friend's truck. The collision threw both Brown and his wife off the motorcycle. Brown later died and Linda suffered critical injuries.

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Normally in a case like this, someone screwed something up: the rider is either going too fast or the driver doesn’t do the mandatory stop. However, in this case, nobody is to blame. Brown respected the 55 mph speed limit and Friend stopped and checked for oncoming traffic before taking off. That’s where things get complicated: who, then, is to blame for the accident? Holding someone responsible doesn’t undo the tragedy, but can help bring closure to the people affected.

A Google Maps screen capture showing the intersection in question. The Browns would have approached the intersection from the left of the image.

A Google Maps screen capture showing the intersection in question. The Browns would have approached the intersection from the left of the image.

In the Browns’ case, the answer came from recent history. The intersection had been flagged as hazardous four years prior. The city of Ontario had requested that a flashing caution light be installed at the intersection after 14 crashes similar to the Browns’ had been reported between 1995 and 1999.

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A safety study was initiated the same year, but the file probably landed at the bottom of a drawer, under the snacks, and was forgotten over time. Forgotten, that is, until August 2003 when Wayne Brown passed away.

Twelve years after the accident, the Court of Claims made the state responsible for the crash and awarded the widow and her two children over $3.9 million in compensation. The state appealed the ruling, arguing that Mr. Friend was at fault for failing to yield. The appeal backfired.

On June 7th, the Court of Appeals upheld the Court of Claims’ ruling, maintaining that the state is in fact accountable for the unsafe layout of the intersection which caused the accident, as well as for its inaction following the city’s 1999 report. The intersection is now properly framed by a four-way stop.

Sources: Democrat & Chronicle, Justia US Law

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