The County Was Negligent Per Se Due to Its Violation of the Provision of the Vehicle and Traffic Law Requiring Loads in Open Trucks be Covered—Plaintiff Was Struck by Debris Which Came Off an Uncovered Load—The Governmental Immunity Conferred by the Executive Law During a Response to an Emergency (the Truck Was Carrying Debris from the Clean-Up After Hurricane Irene) Did Not Extend to this Situation (Purpose and Scope of the Government’s “Emergency” Immunity Under the Executive Law Explained)
Plaintiff was injured when a piece of lumber fell off an open truck owned by the county. Plaintiff was driving her vehicle when the debris came off the county truck and struck her in the head. The county truck was being used to transport debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The Third Department determined that, by transporting unsecured debris in an open truck, the county had violated Vehicle and Traffic Law 380-a (1) and, therefore, the county was negligent per se. The court interpreted Vehicle and Traffic Law 380-a to mean that a prima facie case of a violation of the statute is made out by proof a load in an open truck was not covered. Once that showing is made, the owner of the truck will not be deemed to have violated the statute, despite the lack of a cover, if the owner can show the load was secure such that no cover was required. No such showing was possible here. The court rejected the county’s argument that the emergency-related immunity conferred by the Executive Law applied here. The court noted the purpose of the Executive-Law immunity is to allow the government to make decisions during an emergency—which roads to clear first, for instance—without fear of liability, but the “emergency” immunity did not insulate the county from liability for its negligence in every context:
Executive Law § 25 (1) provides that, “[u]pon the threat or occurrence of a disaster, the chief executive of any political subdivision is hereby authorized and empowered to and shall use any and all facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel and other resources of his [or her] political subdivision in such manner as may be necessary or appropriate to cope with the disaster or any emergency resulting therefrom.” To be sure, this statute, which vests a political subdivision’s chief executive “with the power to respond to a local disaster or the immediate threat of a disaster, . . . reflects an awareness by the . . . Legislature that in emergency situations prompt and immediate unilateral action is necessary to preserve and protect life and property” … . Consistent with that awareness, the statute further provides, as noted previously, that “[a] political subdivision shall not be liable for any claim based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of any officer or employee in carrying out the provisions of this section” (Executive Law § 25 ).
In our view, the scope of the immunity conferred by Executive Law § 25 is clear. When faced with a disaster, a political subdivision’s chief executive may, for example, decide where to set up a makeshift hospital or aid station, prioritize and determine which streets to clear or allocate supplies and personnel as he or she sees fit, and such discretionary determinations, in turn, will not serve as a basis upon which to expose the political subdivision to liability. In other words, a disgruntled homeowner who is confronted with a flooded basement and is living on an impassable residential street cannot seek to hold a locality liable for damages simply because its chief executive deemed it more important to first clear a path to the local hospital or to pump out the holding cells in the local police station. That said, the immunity conferred by Executive Law § 25 (5) does not, to our analysis, grant a political subdivision carte blanche to perform a discretionary function in any manner that it sees fit — particularly in a manner that poses a danger to the traveling public. Here, a valid — and discretionary — determination may well have been made that the removal of storm debris from, among other locations, the DPW garage was a priority and, further, that transporting such debris in open containers was the most efficient and expeditious way to do so. The discretionary nature of these broad, resource-based decisions, however, did not obviate the need for defendants to comply with the provisions of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 380-a (1) in terms of the actual transport of such debris. As the immunity conferred by Executive Law § 25 (5) does not, in our view, extend to the particular facts of this case, Supreme Court properly denied defendants’ cross motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint. …
Vehicle and Traffic Law § 380-a (1), which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful to operate on any public highway any open truck or trailer being utilized for the transportation of any loose substances, unless said truck or trailer has a cover, tarpaulin or other device of a type and specification . . . which completely closes in the opening on. . . said truck or trailer while said truck or trailer shall be so operated, so as to prevent the falling of any such substances therefrom. However, if the load is arranged so that no loose substance can fall from or blow out of such truck, the covering is not necessary.” * * *
In our view, in order to discharge her initial burden on her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff need only have shown that defendants failed to utilize a cover; at that point, the burden shifted to defendants to demonstrate that no statutory violation actually occurred because the load was arranged in such a manner that no cover was necessary. To hold otherwise would place a nearly insurmountable burden upon plaintiff, as the manner in which the container was loaded and the contents were arranged inevitably lies within the exclusive knowledge of defendants… . Pierce v Hickey, 2015 NY Slip Op 04914, 3rd Dept 6-11-15