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Lifson v. City of Syracuse  2011 NY Slip Op 07145

New York Court of Appeals Decided October 13, 2011

Issue: Whether the trial court’s instruction to the jury on the emergency doctrine in favor of the Defendant, Klink, was appropriate where defendant was a driver on a familiar route on his way home from work and was momentarily blinded by the Sun and as a result struck and killed a pedestrian, Irene Lifson.  Was the blinding effect of the Sun an emergency situation i.e. a sudden and unexpected circumstance warranting an instruction to the jury on the emergency doctrine that generally asks the jury to decide whether defendant was faced with an emergency situation not of his own making and if so whether his conduct in response to that situation was that of a reasonable prudent person.  The instruction to the jury stated that if they determined that he had faced an emergency situation and acted reasonable, it was to find for the defendant.

Holding: The Court of Appeals found that this was not an emergency situation, i.e. a sudden and unexpected circumstance because the defendant was familiar with the general area and the route he was driving was well known to him.  The Court held that under these facts the sun glare did not constitute as a qualifying emergency.  The Court was careful to say that it was NOT holding that sun glare can never constitute an emergency.

Facts: Klink was the driver of an automobile that struck plaintiff’s decedent, Irene Lifson, while she was crossing the street, causing her death. Pursuant to Klink’s claim that the accident occurred while he was temporarily blinded by sun glare, the trial court instructed the jury on the emergency doctrine in his favor. We find that, under these circumstances, it was error to give the jury the emergency instruction.

On February 29, 2000, the day of the accident, Klink retrieved his car after work. he was attempting to make a left-hand turn onto Harrison Street from Harrison Place.

 Klink testified that he stopped at the stop sign to make the left turn onto Harrison Street, but that his view of oncoming traffic was partially obstructed by parked cars in the left-hand lane of Harrison Street He maintained that, when he looked back to his left, mid-turn, he was blinded by the sun, “all of a sudden.” His reaction was to look down and to his right and, when he looked up, the first object he saw was Ms. Lifson. Although he applied the brakes, he was unable to avoid hitting her, having seen her only a fraction of a second prior to impact.

Legal Analysis: The ensuing trial was limited to the issue of liability.  the trial court gave the jury an emergency doctrine instruction in Klink’s favor. The instruction generally conveyed to the jury that it had to determine whether Klink was in fact confronted with an emergency situation not of his own making and, if so, whether his conduct in response to that situation was that of a reasonably prudent person. The jury was free to reject both of those propositions, but if it determined that he had faced an emergency situation and acted reasonably, it was to find for Klink.

The common-law emergency doctrine “recognizes that when an actor is faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance which leaves little or no time for thought, deliberation or consideration, or causes the actor to be reasonably so disturbed that the actor must make a speedy decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, the actor may not be negligent if the actions taken are reasonable and prudent in the emergency context, provided the actor has not created the emergency” (Caristo v Sanzone, 96 NY2d 172, 174.

The doctrine recognizes that a person confronted with such an emergency situation “cannot reasonably be held to the same accuracy of judgment or conduct as one who has had full opportunity to reflect, even though it later appears that the actor made the wrong decision” (Rivera v New York City Tr. Auth., 77 NY2d 322, 327 [1991]

The trial judge must make the threshold determination whether a reasonable view of the evidence supports the existence of a qualifying emergency (see Caristo, 96 NY2d at 175). When reviewing the determination that an emergency instruction was warranted, we evaluate the evidence in the light most favorable to the party requesting the charge

 While Klink did not drive this particular route often, he was familiar with the general area since he worked in the MONY Towers. Klink was about to turn to the west at a time of day that the sun would be setting. It is well known, and therefore cannot be considered a sudden and unexpected circumstance, that the sun can interfere with one’s vision as it nears the horizon at sunset, particularly when one is heading west. This is not to say that sun glare can never generate an emergency situation but, under the circumstances presented, there is no reasonable view of the evidence under which sun glare constitutes a qualifying emergency.

Moreover, the error in giving the emergency instruction was not harmless. The improper charge permitted the jury to consider Klink’s action under an extremely favorable standard. Because the application of that instruction to the facts presented could have affected the outcome of the trial, it was not harmless error