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Pettiford v. State

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

January 16, 2018

MICHAEL PETTIFORD
v.
STATE OF CONNECTICUT

          Argued November 14, 2017

          Brenden P. Leydon, for the appellant (named plaintiff).

          James E. Coyne, with whom was Colleen D. Fries, for the appellee (defendant).

          Alvord, Prescott and Pellegrino, Js.

          OPINION

          PRESCOTT, J.

         In this action arising out of a motor vehicle collision with a pedestrian, the plaintiff Michael Pettiford appeals, following a trial to the court, from the judgment rendered in favor of the defendant, the state of Connecticut.[1] The court concluded that the plaintiff was ‘‘at least'' 60 percent contributorily negligent for his injuries and, thus, was barred from recovering damages on the basis of the defendant's negligence in accordance with General Statutes § 52-572h (b).[2] The plaintiff claims on appeal that he is entitled to a new trial because the court's comparative negligence calculus rested on the court's erroneous determination that there was not an unmarked crosswalk at the location where the plaintiff was struck by the defendant's vehicle. The defendant disputes the existence of an unmarked crosswalk and also argues in the alternative that the existence of an unmarked crosswalk, or lack thereof, is legally insignificant because the trial court found that the plaintiff had failed to prove how and where along the roadway he crossed at the time of the accident. We agree with the defendant that the court properly determined that no unmarked crosswalk existed but conclude in the alternative that, even if an unmarked crosswalk existed, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he was in or very near that crosswalk at the time he was hit by the defendant's vehicle, and, therefore, we lack any basis from which to determine whether the claimed error undermined the court's judgment. Because the form of the judgment was improper, however, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case with direction to render judgment in favor of the defendant.

         The following facts, as found by the court in its memorandum of decision, [3] and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of the plaintiff's claim. The accident at issue occurred at approximately 6 p.m. on January 7, 2009, in the westbound lane of Rock Spring Road in Stamford, somewhere near its intersection with Treat Avenue and theentranceto102 Rock Spring Road. Trevor Jones, a state employee, was driving a GMC passenger van that was owned by the defendant when he struck the plaintiff, who was crossing the roadway.

         Prior to the accident, Jones had been transporting members of the Wilcox Technical High School girls basketball team home from a practice. He dropped off the last girl at the intersection of Rock Spring Road and Coolidge Avenue before proceeding westward on Rock Spring Road. It was rainy that evening, with limited visibility, and the roadway was not well lit. Although Jones had his headlights and windshield wipers on, the headlights of oncoming vehicles made it difficult at times to observe the roadway. Just prior to hitting the plaintiff with the van, Jones observed a United Parcel Service truck that was parked to his left on the eastbound side of the road with its lights on or flashing. The van traveled approximately twenty-five or thirty feet further before striking the plaintiff, who was near the double yellow line in the center of the road.[4]Jones did not see the plaintiff until a split second before the accident, having been blinded by oncoming headlights just seconds before. He tried to maneuver the van to the left to avoid the collision but was unsuccessful. The van was travelling at approximately fifteen to twenty miles per hour at the time it hit the plaintiff. The posted speed limit on Rock Springs Road was twenty-five miles per hour.

         The right front corner of the van struck the plaintiff in the right hip, and he sustained serious injuries to his head and body. When emergency responders arrived, the plaintiff was lying near the beginning of the driveway leading to 102 Rock Spring Road. A package addressed to that location was found near the plaintiff, suggesting that he had been in the process of making a delivery to that address at the time of the accident. The plaintiff was wearing a dark brown uniform without any reflective markings or devices at the time of the accident. The responding police officer, Jeffrey Boothe, made a nonscale diagram of the accident site, which he included in his official report.

         On November 12, 2010, the plaintiff commenced this action against the defendant.[5] The operative amended complaint was filed on October 21, 2015, [6] and contained a single count sounding in negligence. The plaintiff alleged various injuries he sustained as a result of the accident and that those injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendant's agent, Jones, in one or more of the following ways: he failed to keep a reasonable and proper lookout; he operated the van at a greater speed than warranted under the circumstances; he operated the van with inadequate or defective brakes or failed to apply the brakes properly; he failed to keep the van under proper control; failed to maneuver the van around the plaintiff; he operated the van at an unreasonable rate of speed in violation of General Statutes §§ 14-218a or 14-219; he failed to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing in an unmarked crosswalk in violation of General Statutes § 14-300 (c);[7] he failed to exercise due care to avoid striking a pedestrian in violation of General Statutes § 14-300d; and he failed to sound a horn or other noise emitting device to avoid the collision in violation of § 14-300d.

         The defendant filed an answer to the complaint and a special defense. The operative answer was filed on April 26, 2011. The final, operative special defense was filed on October 13, 2015. Although the defendant admitted in its answer that the plaintiff was struck by a van owned by the state and operated by a state employee acting within the scope of his employment, it denied all the various specifications of negligence. Further- more, by way of special defense, the defendant asserted that any injuries alleged by the plaintiff were proximately caused by his own negligence. In particular, the defendant alleged that the plaintiff was negligent in that he failed to ensure that the roadway was clear of approaching vehicles before crossing and failed to be attentive of his surroundings or to keep a proper lookout. The defendant also alleged that the plaintiff abruptly left the safety of the curbside and walked into the path of a vehicle that was so close to the plaintiff that it constituted an immediate hazard to him in violation of General Statutes § 14-300c (b); he crossed the roadway outside of a crosswalk without yielding the right-of-way to the defendant's vehicle in violation of General Statutes § 14-300b (a); and he failed to walk against traffic on the roadway in violation of § 14-300c (a).[8]Finally, the defendant alleged that the plaintiff's actions amounted to negligent use of a highway in violation of General Statutes § 53-182. The plaintiff filed a reply generally denying the allegations in the special defense.

         The case was tried to the court, Hon. Taggart D. Adams, judge trial referee, between November 5 and November 13, 2015. The parties submitted simultaneous posttrial briefs on January 29, 2016. On April 8, 2016, the court issued a written memorandum of decision, dismissing the action.[9]

         The court began its analysis by rejecting the plaintiff's argument that the defendant's agent had an enhanced duty to avoid the collision because the plaintiff had been in or very near to an ‘‘unmarked crosswalk'' at the time he was struck by the defendant's van. The court reviewed the statutory definition of ‘‘crosswalk'' set forth in General Statutes § 14-297 (2), which provides, in relevant part, that crosswalks emanate from ‘‘the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks at intersections . . . .'' (Emphasis added.) It then agreed with the defendant that because Treat Avenue does not have sidewalks at the point where it intersects with Rock Spring Road, ‘‘there are no lateral lines of sidewalk on Treat Avenue to prolongate into Rock Spring Road to create an unmarked crosswalk.''

         The court then turned to a discussion of the various claims of negligence raised by the parties. Importantly, the court commented on the scant evidence pertaining to the plaintiff's actions prior to the accident, stating: ‘‘It is not known whether [the plaintiff] crossed at a ninety degree angle or took a longer diagonal crossing from his truck to the delivery address.'' The court made no specific findings regarding where along Rock Spring Road the plaintiff entered the roadway, the precise path ...


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