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State of New York Liable for Damages in Two Cases involving Roadway Fatalities

Posted in Wrongful Death

On January 23, 2004, Jason Rhoades sustained fatal injuries when the vehicle he was driving slid across the roadway over a bridge on Interstate 81 in Syracuse, struck a snowbank packed against the concrete barrier guard at the edge of the bridge, and his car vaulted off the bridge to the road below.

Thirty-six hours later, William Gardner also sustained fatal injuries when he drove along the same roadway, struck the same barrier, vaulted over the snow-covered concrete barrier and fell to the street below.

Scene from Trial Exhibit

Jason Rhoades was married to Isabelle Rhoades and the father of their two young children (two year old Luke and two month old Isabella) when he died at the age of 28. He had been elected East Syracuse mayor at the age of 24 and was a director of communications products and information technology at Cornell University earning $142,424 a year.

William Gardner was married for 14 years to Cynthia Gardner before they divorced in 2000.  He was the father of their two children (19 year old Brandon and 15 year old Ryan) when he died at the age of 50. He had served in the United States Air Force for 25 years attached to the space program before retiring in 2001 as a full colonel. Then, he worked as a project manager in space technology at Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of technology in Pasadena, California earning $155,584 a year (plus an Air Force pension of $45,454 a year).

Each of the families asserted claims against the State for personal injuries and economic damages for wrongful death. In both matters, the Court of Claims judge in Syracuse (Diane L. Fitzpatrick) found that the State was not liable for these single car accidents and she dismissed the lawsuits after trial; however in each case, the judge’s decision on liability was reversed by the appellate court.

In both Grevelding v. State of New York (4th Dept. 2012) [Peter Grevelding is the named claimant as he was the executor of the estate of Mr. Rhoades, his nephew] and Gardner v. State of New York (4th Dept. 2010), liability against the State was imposed by the appellate court because the State, by its plowing methods, created the snowbank which constituted a dangerous condition and was a substantial cause of the accident.

New trials were ordered to determine the amount of damages. The damages trials were held in 2012 and 2013 and the judge’s decisions in each of those damages trials have now been handed up.

In the decision following the damages trial in Grevelding (Court of Claims 9/30/13), damages were awarded in the total sum of $14,797,888 and in the decision following the damages trial in Gardner (Court of Claims 11/19/12), damages were awarded in the total sum of $3,569,985. Both cases are still pending, with collateral source and so-called Article 50-B hearings required and appeals expected from all parties.

Each of the cases involved substantial economic damages (as well as claims for pre-death personal injury and loss of parental guidance).

In Grevelding, the economic damages were $10,347,888, as follows:

  • Funeral Expenses – $15,602
  • Loss of Income, Support and Household Services – $8,728,980
  • Loss of Inheritance – $1,603,306

In Gardner, the economic damages were $2,494,985, as follows:

  • Funeral Expenses – $6,985
  • Loss of Financial Support – $1,122,500
  • Loss of Inheritance – $1,365,500

The pre-death personal injury claims in each case were hard fought and involved gruesome evidence.

In Grevelding, the judge awarded $250,000 for pre-impact terror based on testimony from witnesses and several experts for both sides, including the county coroner who examined Mr. Rhoades. He opined that Mr. Rhoades lived for one to two minutes struggling to breathe after the impact fractured his neck and  before he died in his vehicle due to asphyxiation. Dr. Michael Baden, world renowned formed New York City Medical Examiner, testified for the defense. He agreed with claimant’s position that the cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma however he contended that Mr. Rhoades did not asphyxiate but was rendered immediately unconscious from the injuries to his brain and lungs.

The judge declined to make an award for pre-death physical pain and suffering finding that although Mr. Rhoades may have lived, breathing and heart beating for a moment or two after impact, there is “no direct  or circumstantial evidence that he was conscious.” Nonetheless, she awarded the $250,000 for pre-impact terror based on her inference that Mr. Rhoades, “as he approached the top of the snowbank without stopping,” likely endured “more than two seconds” of acute fear of death or serious harm.

In Gardner, the judge also awarded $250,000 for pre-impact terror. She based the award on the testimony of another driver who saw Col. Gardner’s car as he lost control, hit the snowbank and fall to the street below. The judge concluded that “several seconds” transpired from the moment Col. Gardner’s car hit the median barrier, left the bridge railing and landed on the street below. In this case, too, the judge declined to make any award at all for pre-death physical pain and suffering because, even though Col. Gardner may have lived for a short time after impact (as much as a minute or two), “there is no evidence he was conscious upon impact or had some level of awareness of his pain.”

The parental loss of guidance awards were substantial in both cases and involved poignant testimony about the relationships between and among the deceased fathers and their children.

In Grevelding, the judge awarded $2,000,000 ($900,000 past – 9 years, $1,100,000 future –  7 years) for Luke (11 years old at trial) plus $2,200,000 ($900,000 past – 9 years, $1,300,000 future –  9 years) for Amelia (2 years old at trial). These awards were based upon the testimony of several witnesses who described Mr. Rhoades’ “enveloping love for his children and daily involvement in their care and development,” as well as the expert testimony from a psychologist with a doctorate in human development and family studies who discussed the impact of the loss of a father on his children.

In Gardner, the judge awarded $350,000 ($300,000 past – 9 years, $50,000 future – 3 years) for Brandon (28 years old at trial) plus $475,000 ($425,000 past – 9 years, $50,000 future 3 years) for Ryan (24 years old at trial). These awards were based upon the testimony of the sons about how involved and supportive Col. Gardner was in their lives as well as testimony from their mother and several of Col. Gardner’s friends. The judge specifically noted that the evidence was clear that there was a strong bond between father and sons, Col. Gardner was a role model for them and his advice and guidance would have continued as his sons graduated college and began their careers.

Inside Information:

  • So-called loss of parental guidance damages are deemed recoverable in New York by virtue of Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 5-4.3. While the statute merely refers to “pecuniary injuries resulting from the decedent’s death,” the courts have for more than one hundred years held that the word “pecuniary” includes injuries arising to children from the loss of a parent, who owes them a duty of nurture, and of intellectual, moral and physical training.
  • In Gardner, the defense urged a modest award, if any, for loss of parental guidance, contending that “Brandon and Ryan had already substantially received the benefit of their father’s advice and guidance before he died, during the most important formative years of their development.”

UPDATE: Some of the damages awards were modified in the October 9, 2015 appellate court decision in Grevelding v. State of New York, discussed here.