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Auto Accidents

Goshen Tragedy Raises Questions of Driver’s Ed Instructor Liability

October 1, 2015 | Dominique A. Penson

On Tuesday morning, July 14th, three high school students sustained fatal injuries when their driver’s education car entered an intersection and was struck broadside by a tractor trailer. The accident, which stunned the community of Goshen and the vicinity, raises serious questions about who is liable when a driver’s ed vehicle is involved in a traffic accident.  

The facts, reported by 4 New York, are as follows:

A 16 year-old girl was behind the wheel as the vehicle approached the intersection of County Road 1 and Blooms Corner Road in Warwick, NY. A 61 year-old male instructor from the Decat Driving School was in the front passenger seat. Three high school boys were in the backseat. The driver’s ed car stopped at a flashing red traffic light, then proceeded into the intersection where the tractor trailer, unable to stop, hit the car. One of the boys died at the scene, the other two died at the hospital. The student driver sustained injuries, but was released from the hospital on Wednesday. The instructor and the truck driver were treated for injuries that were not life threatening.

4 New York stated that the tractor-trailer had the right of way. Interviews of local residents give the impression of a notoriously dangerous intersection in need of a fully functional traffic light to compensate for limited sight distance. At the intersection, there have been 36 accidents and three deaths in the last 10 years.

In this scenario, who might be found liable for the accident?

If the truck driver had the right of way, he is not at fault for the accident. Potential at-fault parties include:

  • The student driver — Even when they are not fully licensed, probationary drivers have a duty to drive safely. Entering the intersection when the tractor-trailer is dangerously close could be negligence if a reasonably attentive driver would have seen the truck approaching.
  • The driving instructor — The instructor is charged with several tasks and could have performed any or all of them negligently:
    • Providing a proper learning atmosphere within the vehicle — There are no facts on the record to support an inference that activity in the car prevented the girl from concentrating and executing maneuvers safely, but it does not take a stretch of the imagination to envision three high school boys, huddled together in the back seat, cutting up together as a pretty girl tries to drive. Did the instructor, rather than taking control of the situation, require the girl to drive with backseat distractions?
    • Keeping students focused on the task of driving — The car had reached an intersection with poor sight lines. Did the instructor urge the requisite caution?
    • Monitoring student driver progress to know what level of skills they have and what maneuvers they can safely execute — Crossing an intersection is not an advanced maneuver, but had the instructor observed any difficulty from this student driver with regards to gauging oncoming traffic?
    • Choosing a route to travel that meets their skill level — Should the instructor have known about the degree of difficulty for this particular intersection and planned another route?
    • Intervening to prevent accidents — The instructor has a brake pedal and can hold the car in place if progress is unsafe. Given where the instructor was seated, was it careless for him not to have seen the approaching truck and apply the brake?
  • The driving school — Under the theory of respondeat superior, the company must answer for the negligence of its employees in the performance of their duties. If the instructor was careless, the company must compensate the victims.
  • The government entity in charge of the intersection — Is it possible that sightlines are so bad that even an attentive driver would have missed an approaching tractor-trailer? Given the history of this particular intersection, it is possible that authorities were negligent, because they should have recognized the need to install a fully operational traffic light to prevent accidents like this one.

A good number of questions remain about this accident and it’s possible we’ll never know the full truth of what happened. If you have questions about your traffic accident, our experienced attorneys can evaluate your case free of charge. To schedule a consultation, call [ln::firm_name]. P.C. at [ln::phone] or contact us online.

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