Municipalities may be liable for crashes on streets where design encourages high speeds

By Bill Holloway
On December 22, the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that municipalities may be liable for traffic injuries when the design of roads contributes to reckless driving or excessive speeding. The 6-1 decision in Turturro v. City of New York found that city transportation officials did not adequately study traffic calming as a way to reduce the problem of excessive speeding on Gerritsen Avenue, a busy street in Brooklyn.
The case stems from a 2004 incident in which a car, driven by Louis Pascarella, struck 12-year-old Anthony Turturro who was attempting to cross the street at mid-block on his bicycle. Pascarella was driving at least 54 mph in a 30 mph zone when he hit Turturro. Turturro suffered brain injuries from the crash that put him into a coma for five months and have left him disabled. Pascarella pled guilty to second-degree assault in the criminal case that followed. At a subsequent civil trial, the court found Pascarella to be 50 percent at fault, New York City 40 percent at fault, and Turturro, the bicyclist, 10 percent at fault. While an appeals court reduced the total award to $20 million from an initial $36 million, that still leaves the city responsible for an $8 million share.
The State Court of Appeals ruled that New York City would have been entitled to immunity in the case if it had performed the proper studies to remedy the well-known problem of speeding in the area. While the city studied three intersections on Gerritsen Avenue and notified police of speeding problems after each study, it failed to study traffic calming measures as a way to slow traffic speeds. Attorney Steve Vaccaro, quoted in Streetsblog, noted that “The court held that departments of transportation can be held liable for harm caused by speeding drivers, where the DOT fails to install traffic-calming measures even though it is aware of dangerous speeding, unless the DOT has specifically undertaken a study and determined that traffic calming is not required.”
More information about the case is available on the New York Law Journal and Streetsblog websites.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.