NY Appeals Court Upholds Reduced Verdict In Accident Case

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court has upheld a jury verdict awarding a motorist $20,000 in damages over an accident with a responding volunteer firefighter. Oddly enough, it was the motorist who appealed the verdict contending that the jury and the court erred in finding him 60% at fault and the volunteer firefighter just 40% at fault for the accident.

Jeffrey K. Schleger filed suit against Michael F. Jurcsak, Jr., and the Valley Stream Fire Department over an August 2, 2009 collision. As explained in the decision:

  • At the time of the accident, [Jurcsak] was responding to a fire in his capacity as a volunteer firefighter for the defendant Valley Stream Fire Department and attempted to cross an intersection against a red light.
  • At a trial on the issue of liability, the [Schleger] testified that he had a green light at the intersection where the accident occurred, and did not hear any horns, see any flashing lights, or see any vehicles attempting to cross the intersection until it was too late to take evasive maneuvers.
  • [Jurcsak] testified that he stopped at a red light at the intersection with his emergency light flashing, saw there was minimal cross traffic, and attempted to cross the intersection when the plaintiff’s vehicle collided with his vehicle.
  • The jury found, inter alia, that both [Schleger] and [Jurcsak] were negligent, their negligence was a substantial factor in causing the accident, and [Schleger] was 60% at fault in the happening of the accident and [Jurcsak]was 40% at fault.
  • The Supreme Court denied the [Schleger] ‘s motion for judgment as a matter of law made at the close of evidence and the [Schleger] ‘s motion to set aside the verdict and for judgment as a matter of law.
  • A separate trial was then held on the issue of damages. The court thereafter entered a judgment in favor of [Schleger] and against the defendants in the principal sum of $20,000.

Schleger appealed contending he was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law for his full damages, not just 40%, and it was error for the judge to let the jury decide the case. The Appellate Division disagreed stating:

  • A motion for judgment as a matter of law . . . may be granted only when the trial court determines that, upon the evidence presented, there is no valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could possibly lead rational persons to the conclusion reached by the jury upon the evidence presented at trial, and no rational process by which the jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party.
  • The defendant driver [Jurcsak] testified that he had his emergency light flashing, flashed his high beam headlights,  and honked his horn as he attempted to cross the intersection.
  • Furthermore, he testified that he observed other vehicles slowing and stopping to let him pass as he safely crossed eight to nine lanes before his vehicle was struck by the plaintiff’s vehicle in the last lane of the intersection.
  • A jury verdict, including its apportionment of fault, 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.
  • Contrary to the plaintiff [Schleger]’s contention, the jury’s verdict on the issue of liability finding that the plaintiff was negligent and 60% at fault in the happening of the accident was not contrary to the weight of the evidence because a fair interpretation of the evidence supports the verdict.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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