As Walton and its progeny make abundantly clear, the proximate cause requirement of the No–Fault Law is not established merely because injury occurred during the occupancy of or while entering or exiting a vehicle. Adopting this approach would be tantamount to equating proximate cause with the term “occupying” a vehicle. However, more than occupancy is required to establish a causal link between a motor vehicle and a claimant’s injuries. Instead, what Walton requires for the No–Fault Law to apply is that the motor vehicle itself be the instrumentality which produces the injuries.
For example, in Sochinski v. Bankers & Shippers Ins. Co., the Third Department held that the claimant did not qualify for first-party, no-fault benefits even though the injury occurred while the claimant was occupying a motor vehicle. Specifically, the insured was allegedly injured when airborne particles caused by sandblasting at a highway construction site entered the car’s open window and lodged in his eyes. The court held that the claimant did not qualify for first-party, no-fault benefits because the motor vehicle was wholly incidental to the event which produced the injury; it was not the instrumentality, i.e. proximate cause, of the injury.
Conversely, in Matter of Farm Family Cas. Ins. Co. (Trapani), 301 A.D.2d 740, 753 N.Y.S.2d 198 (2003), the claimant’s injuries, which occurred while alighting from a motor vehicle, were deemed to fall within the ambit of the No–Fault Law where the vehicle itself was the instrumentality that caused the claimant’s injuries. In Trapani, the driver lost control of her car and struck a utility pole, pole, causing the power lines to short out and rain sparks and hot pieces of wire down onto the 75–year–old claimant, who was standing in the garden of her home along the roadway. In attempting to run from this hazard, claimant fell and sustained injury to her head and left knee. The court found that the vehicle proximately caused the claimant’s injuries since the hazard that caused the fall was triggered by the impact of the car on the pole.
In this case, under any fair interpretation of the evidence, it cannot be said that the vehicle in question was the instrumentality that caused plaintiff’s fall. First, her accident did not arise out of the inherent nature of the bus; she stepped into a hole and fell. Second, the accident did not arise within the natural territorial limits of the bus; she fell on the street. And third, while the bus may have positioned plaintiff near the condition which ultimately produced the injury, by letting her off in front of the hole, the bus itself was not the instrumentality that produced the alleged injury. Instead, the act of stepping into the hole and twisting her ankle produced plaintiff’s sprained ankle. As the Court of Appeals stated, Where, as here, the plaintiff’s injury was caused by an instrumentality other than the insured vehicle, liability for the losses sustained are more properly addressed outside the area of no-fault motor vehicle insurance.
Defendants rely on a recent decision from the Second Department, with a seemingly similar fact pattern. In Manuel v. New York City Tr. Auth., 82 A.D.3d 1059, 918 N.Y.S.2d 787 (2011), the plaintiff alleged that he was injured when he fell in a hole in the street while alighting from a bus. After a trial on the issue of liability, the jury found that the defendant was negligent, and that its negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s accident, and that the plaintiff was not negligent.