The First Department, reversing Supreme Court, determined the city’s motion for summary judgment in this car-accident case should have been granted. Plaintiff was struck by a police van driven by an unlicensed car-wash attendant. The city was not liable for negligently entrusting the vehicle to the unlicensed driver because, inter alia, there was no duty to make sure the attendant had a license before handing over the keys to him. In addition, the city was not vicariously liable as the owner of the van pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law 388. Police vehicles are statutorily exempt from such liability. Plaintiff argued that the exemption did not apply because the van was not being “operated” by the police department at the time of the accident. The First Department held that “operated” in this context means “to exercise power over,” and not “driven:”
Plaintiff’s argument that the NYPD traffic van does not qualify as a “police vehicle,” because it was not being “operated by the police department” at the time of the accident, but, rather, was being “operated” by the car wash attendant, assumes that the term “operated” means “to cause to function” (Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary, http://beta.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/operate [accessed Jan. 27, 2016]) or is a substitute for the word “driven.” This ignores the common use of the term “operated” as an intransitive verb meaning “to exert power or influence” (id.). Under plaintiff’s interpretation, a police vehicle would not qualify as such under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 132-a, unless it was being driven by “the police department,” which strains common sense, since a police department cannot be the driver of a vehicle.
More importantly, plaintiff’s interpretation would strip the exemption provided to police vehicles in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(2) of its force and effect. Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388 specifically contemplates that someone, other than the vehicle’s owner, is driving the vehicle when an injury occurs. If “police vehicles” are only exempted when an owner or owner equivalent is driving, there would be no need for the exemption in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(2). This interpretation is untenable as it would render the police vehicle exemption in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(2) meaningless … . Guevara v Ortega, 2016 NY Slip Op 01106, 1st Dept 2-16-16
NEGLIGENCE (CITY NOT LIABLE FOR ACCIDENT WHICH OCCURRED WHEN UNLICENSED CAR-WASH ATTENDANT WAS DRIVING POLICE VAN)/MUNICIPAL LAW (CITY NOT LIABLE FOR ACCIDENT WHICH OCCURRED WHEN UNLICENSED CAR-WASH ATTENDANT WAS DRIVING POLICE VAN)/VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC LAW (CITY NOT LIABLE FOR ACCIDENT WHICH OCCURRED WHEN UNLICENSED CAR-WASH ATTENDANT WAS DRIVING POLICE VAN)