New York State’s Defense to Syracuse Megabus Accident: “A Safer Design Was Too Expensive, Impractical and Nearly Impossible”. Will This Defense Work in Court?

In an article entitled “NY DOT chief nixes big fixes for Onondaga Lake Parkway railroad bridge”, the Syracuse Post Standard quotes a top New York Department of Transportation official as saying that structural design changes to keep trucks, buses and other tall vehicles from crashing against the railroad bridge above the Onondaga Lake Parkway are too expensive and impractical. According to this official, while other less costly, minor improvements might be possible (including tinkering with the warning signs’ height), major structural changes aimed at eliminating the low clearance of the bridge are all but impossible.

How does a Syracuse bus accident attorney go about investigating this defense? Well, first, he or she would have to recognize that this “we couldn’t do it” defense is not new. It was probably invented about the same time as roads were! Therefore, there is a whole body New York roadway design liability case law that defines the parameters of this defense.

Here’s what that law says in a nutshell: While a governmental entity (such as the State of New York or Onondaga County) has a duty to plan, design, construct and maintain reasonably safe roads, highways, streets, bridges, intersection and traffic control devices, they have what’s known as “qualified immunity” from liability. Under this “qualified immunity”, the governmental body may be held liable only when its roadway design was “plainly inadequate or there was no reasonable basis for its plan or design”. The State or County can’t be held liable just because there might have been a better, safer design. The actual design has to be, in light of all the circumstances, “plainly inadequate” or “unreasonable”. Further, once the State is made aware that something about the road is dangerous (for example, tall trucks keep crashing against the bridge!), it must then undertake new studies to see if the danger can be reduced.

In this case, in order to hold the State liable with respect to the planning and design of the road going under the railroad bridge, the injured plaintiffs, through their Syracuse bus accident lawyer, must show that the roadway area, including the signage warning of the low clearance, evolved “without adequate study” or “lacked a reasonable basis”, or that, after the State became aware of the problem of tall trucks repeatedly striking the bridge, it failed to conduct another study to see if they could, within reason, improve safety there.

But what if a better design that eliminated the low clearance would have been too expensive, as the State is claiming here? Can the State claim it considered making structural changes but just didn’t have the money to make them? Maybe. New York roadway design law does recognize what is known as a “budgetary defense”, that is, that the State can order priorities with other projects based on the availability of funding. And, of course, a structural design that would be unreasonably expensive when weighed against the safety benefits could be deemed “unreasonable” altogether, and thus could protect the State or County from liability.

After all the facts are uncovered and put before the Court, the judge will decide whether the State’s defense is valid. A Syracuse personal injury lawyer’s job is to methodically unearth every fact in the long history of this roadway, and, with the help of a good roadway engineer, present them to the Court in such a way as to maximize plaintiffs’ chances of prevailing.

Keep safe!

Mike Bersani
Email me at: I’d love to hear from you! Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
Central NY Personal Injury Lawyer Michaels Bersani Kalabanka


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