Earlier this month, New York State Court of Claims judge Stephen J. Mignano awarded 32 year old Mahopac resident Slim Zouaoui more than 20 million in damages as the result of a March 11, 2007 car accident in Somers, New York in which the judge found that the State of New York had failed to maintain the roadway in a reasonably safe condition. On the date in question, Zouaoui was traveling eastbound on Route 6 in Somers between Windsor Road and Mahopac Avenue when a vehicle traveling westbound lost control due to an icy condition on the roadway, came into Zouaoui’s lane and collided with his vehicle, crushing his left arm and causing him severe injuries.
In the first part of the case, decided by Judge Mignano in April of 2011, the judge found that the State of New York Department of Transportation was on notice of recurrent icy conditions on Route 6 in the Somers accident location, which was caused by an overflow of water onto the roadway during the daytime hours, and then a refreeze of that water during the evening hours, causing very icy conditions. Judge Mignano determined that the evidence against the State was overwhelming, based on Department of Transportation records which called the area a “hot spot”, which required “extra focus”, and “baby-sitting.” This evidence was supplemented by the fact that there had been two similar accidents in the preceding 9 days before the March 11 accident, and the damning evidence that because the accident occurred on a Sunday, the DOT workers were not working that day and therefore could not provide the necessary “baby-sitting” to prevent the roadway from becoming a hazard.
Having tried many cases in the New York State Court of Claims over the last twenty five years, (all cases against the State are tried in the Court of Claims and there are no jury trials) it is unusual in my experience for judges to rule against the State in highway maintenance cases, and the amount awarded to Mr. Zouaoui is certainly eye opening and substantial for a Court of Claims judge.
With regard to the damages awarded by Judge Mignano, the evidence during the damages trial was that Mr. Zouaoui was required to undergo 28 surgeries since the accident, and due to his left arm being crushed in the accident, lost most of the function in his left arm. However, it is very surprising that Judge Mignano awarded 11 million dollars out of the overall judgment for past and future pain and suffering, in that judges are generally much more conservative in awarding damages for pain and suffering than jurors tend to be, and I cannot remember a pain and suffering award of a similar amount in recent years in a Court of Claims case. Apparently, the judge was also persuaded by the long term narcotic pain medication that Mr. Zouaoui has been required to take to date, clearly reflecting the level of pain that he must obviously be enduring from the accident and into the future.
With regard to the financial damages incurred by Mr. Zouaoui, although he has been able to keep his job as a senior vice president for a information technology firm, which pays him approximately $167,000 annually, Judge Mignano noted that the car accident effectively prevented Mr. Zouaoui from future promotions and raises, will shorten his work life expectancy by about 6 years, and have a damaging effect on his remaining approximately 23 years of work life expectancy. Further, it appears from the decision that the State made the rather foolish decision not to offer a vigorous defense on the damages issue or any countervailing testimony or evidence to reduce the judge’s award for lost earnings and reduced earning capacity, which totaled approximately 9 million dollars. I make this statement based on the reference in the judge’s decision that: “…claimant’s limited employability within the industry should he need to look for work in the future, the shortening of his work life by six years, and the resulting effect on his income over remaining 23 years of his (reduced) work life expectancy was undisputed.”