Subway trains at the Spring Street station twice struck passengers lying on the tracks on separate occasions. How fast should subway trains be moving when they enter a station? The faster the subway trains go, the more people the trains can carry and the quicker people will get to their destinations. Even a slowdown of a few seconds per train can slow the entire system. Speed is so important to the mission of the Transit Authority that the Transit Authority has committed billions of dollars to upgrades which will allow for increases in train speed and carrying capacity. On the other hand, safety is also a paramount priority, and as speeds increase so do stopping distances.
To balance the goals of speed and safety, the Transit Authority established a Speed Policy Committee of experts to set speed limits for the subway system. The speeds as set by the Speed Policy Committee have recently come into question in lawsuits by two plaintiffs who were injured when hit by subway trains. In both cases the plaintiffs claim that the trains, which were well within the speeds set by the Speed Policy Committee, were going too fast for the location. Had the trains been going slower, the plaintiffs argued, the train operators would have stopped the train in time and avoided the injury.
The Transit Authority defended on the theory that the speeds of trains are planning decisions made by the Transit Authority and are protected by qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity provides that where government officials are clothed with the authority to make planning decisions like the safe and efficient speeds of subway trains, courts, in adjudicating torts claims, will not permit the officials’ planning decisions to be questioned if planning decisions have a reasonable basis in safety and efficiency.
The two cases both involve Manhattan’s Spring Street station on the Number 6 line.
The first case is Pedraza v. New York City Transit Authority, 162 N.Y.S.3d 19 (1st Dep’t 2022). The second case is Martinez v. New York City Transit Authority, 162 N.Y.S.3d 11 (1st Dep’t 2022). The facts of both cases as set out below are repeated nearly verbatim from the Transit Authority’s appellate briefs in the two cases.
The Pedraza facts
In the Pedraza case, plaintiff Jose Pedraza finished his shift as a cleaner at a pizzeria in Manhattan Around 5 or 6 a.m. on the morning of Friday, October 26, 2012. Pedraza, who had been up for nearly 20 hours, stopped at a store, bought two beers, and sat down on a stoop to drink them. After finishing, Pedraza boarded a southbound Number 6 train, intending to take it to the Brooklyn Bridge station to meet a former co-worker. Pedraza, who didn’t speak English, hoped the co-worker could translate a letter suggesting that plaintiff may have been owed backpay. Pedraza, by mistake, got off the train at the wrong stop, Spring Street. By the time he realized his error, the train doors had closed. Pedraza decided to stay put. He sat down on a bench on the platform and waited for the next train.
Sometime later, Pedraza heard the sound of a train. He stood up and walked towards his right. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital. The police reported that Pedraza was found underneath the middle of the third car of the subway train, 180 feet inside the Spring Street station. Blood collected from plaintiff an hour after the crash revealed a Blood-Alcohol concentration of 0.13, higher that the .08 level that is sufficient to convict a driver of DWI. At trial, Pedraza conceded he was under the influence of alcohol.
Angel Rivera, the train operator of the train that struck Pedraza, was operating a southbound Number 6 train on the Lexington Avenue line. The southbound Number 6 begins its run at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and ends at Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. Before reaching Brooklyn Bridge, it stops at Bleecker and Spring Streets, two stations in lower Manhattan.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Rivera pulled out of Bleecker Street and continued southbound towards Spring Street. At the mouth of the entrance to the Spring Street station, the subway tracks curve to the right, limiting the operator’s view of the station entrance.
There are no speed restrictions in the tunnel between Bleecker Street and Spring Street and normal speed can be as high as 35.5 mph. Rivera entered Spring Street at about 30 mph, a “normal speed” and lower than the top speed allowed.
To ensure that all ten cars of the 514-foot subway train were safely berthed alongside the 515-foot-long platform, Rivera needed to stop at the ten-car marker at the station’s southern end. Rivera knew that at 30-mph, his train would take 300-feet to stop once he applied the brakes. Consequently, he would start braking when he was two cars, or approximately 150 feet, inside the station, so that the train would reach the appropriate marker.
As Rivera drove the first two cars into the Spring Street station he saw an “object” on the tracks one hundred feet ahead. He instantly activated the train’s emergency brakes. As the train got closer, Rivera realized the object was a person crouched on the track bed. The train slowed down but continued moving before it stopped about 307 feet inside the station.
The Martinez facts
Around 5 a.m., on Saturday, February 27, 2016, 23-year-old Armando Martinez finished his shift as a cook at a Manhattan restaurant. Martinez had been working for ten hours and was heading home to Brooklyn. Martinez normally took a southbound Number 6 train from the 28th Street station at Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and could expect to be home in Brooklyn by 7 a.m. But at 10 a.m. on the morning of February 27, 2016, Martinez inexplicably ended up on the track bed at the Spring Street station. Martinez was found 120 feet inside the station, underneath the second car of a Number 6 train.
After police officers extracted Martinez from beneath the train, Martinez said that he shared drinks with friends. At 4 in the morning, he realized he was drunk and wanted to go home. He knew he wanted to go on the subway, but he didn’t remember how he entered the system; he was too drunk to remember. What he did recall was waking up in a hospital, and that the doctors informed him that they’d have to amputate his foot.
Train Operator Lemuel Gonzalez operated the southbound Number 6 train that struck Martinez. Shortly before 10 a.m., Gonzalez pulled out of the Bleecker Street station, heading southbound towards Spring Street. In accordance with the Authority’s established speed policy, Gonzalez entered the Spring Street station traveling at about 25 miles per hour. Gonzalez’s normal practice after entering was to coast, applying the brakes about halfway into the station which enabled him to stop smoothly at the station’s 10-car marker.
On the day of Martinez’s accident, Gonzalez was coasting into the station, when he noticed, about 50-feet ahead, a prone body between the two running rails. Gonzalez immediately activated the train’s emergency brakes, but the train couldn’t stop in time to avoid hitting Martinez. Gonzalez left his train and found Martinez alive, underneath the rear of the train’s second car
The Pedraza litigation
Pedraza sued the Transit Authority. Pedraza argued that Rivera, the train operator, was negligent because the train was moving too fast given the train’s inability to see around the curve leading into the Spring Street station. Rivera, Pedraza argued, would have spotted Pedraza in time to stop if the train had been moving slower. Pedraza’s expert witness testified that a reasonable entry speed into the station would have been fifteen miles per hour, and that Rivera at that speed would have had enough time to stop.
The Transit Authority did not dispute either that the curve limited Rivera’s ability to observe the tracks ahead of him or the speed of the subway train as it entered the station. The Transit Authority claimed it had a qualified immunity since the subway’s speed was within the designated train speeds specified by the Transit Authority’s Speed Policy Committee after conducting appropriate engineering studies. The Transit Authority argued that trains are required to maintain a certain speed to keep the subway system operating properly, and that thirty miles per hour offered adequate protection for stations like the Spring Street station.
The trial judge refused to allow the testimony concerning the Transit Authority’s Speed Policy Committee or the speed rules based on the Committee’s studies. The trial judge ruled that the only issue in Pedraza’s case was the reasonableness of the speed at Spring Street station.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pedraza. The Transit Authority appealed.
The Appellate Division, First Department, overturned the jury’s verdict and ruled that the trial judge erred in not allowing testimony in support of qualified immunity. The Appellate Division held that qualified immunity was a potential defense, and the jury should have been given the opportunity to assess whether the Transit Authority’s studies were sufficient to establish qualified immunity. The Appellate Division remanded the matter for a new trial, at which the jury could evaluate whether the Transit Authority was justified in relying on generic studies rather than specialized studies of the curved stations within the system.
The Martinez litigation
Martinez sued the Transit Authority and, based on the then current jury’s verdict in Pedraza, the trial court granted Martinez partial summary judgment that the subway train had been going too fast when it entered the Spring Street station. The Transit Authority appealed.
The Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the Martinez case the same day it reversed the Pedraza case. The Appellate Division ruled that since Pedraza had been reversed, the trial court could not apply collateral estoppel on the issue of liability. Like Pedraza, the court sent the case back for trial on whether the Transit Authority was entitled to qualified immunity. The issue at the trial will be whether the speed studies were adequate to support the normal speed at the curved entrance of the Spring Street station.
The Speed Policy Committee
The Transit Authority created the Speed Policy Committee in 1989 and revised it in 1994. The members of the Speed Policy Committee are all senior level officers and operating officials from the operating areas within the Transit Authority.
The Speed Policy Committee decided that in order to provide efficient service, trains should enter stations at “normal speed,” the speed that they were traveling in the tunnel immediately before entry into the station. The Committee reasoned lower speeds at entry would lead to massive overcrowding and a degradation of service, with the system unable to provide the volume of service required. The Transit Authority further argued that reducing entry speed would endanger a vastly larger population of subway riders. With trains entering at artificially lower speeds, service would be slow, as the wait between trains would increase. Platforms would then get more crowded. With larger crowds on platforms, more passengers would be approaching the platform’s edge, increasing the risk that they would be pushed into the gaps between trains and platforms, or wind up on the track bed
The Transit Authority also argued that the curve at the Spring Street station did not warrant a reduction from normal speed. The curve at the Spring Street entrance, the Transit Authority argued, is not particularly sharp, nor is it an outlier.
The Transit Authority pointed out that neither the geometry of the tracks nor the curve of 704 feet radius into the Spring Street station, justify any restriction of speed. At least 50 other platforms have curves just as sharp and many have shaper curves, as for example, Union Square and Grand Central. And those stations that have sharper curves invariably have speed limits at least twice as fast as the fifteen miles per hour Pedraza and Martinez recommended.
The Appellate Division panels refused to side with the Transit Authority and sent both cases back to the trial court for a decision. The Appellate Division wrote that a full record on the work of the Speed Policy Committee had to be developed before a court could rule on the Transit Authority’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.
The Appellate Division’s ruling was a surprise. At least four earlier Appellate Division opinions had ruled in favor of the Speed Policy Committee in similar cases.
But in 2016 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a governmental entity claiming qualified immunity had the burden to show that it had studied the particular condition alleged to have caused the injury. Turturro v. City of New York, 45 N.Y.S.3d 874 (N.Y. 2016). Pedraza and Martinez, following Turturro, argued that a general study of speeds by the Speed Policy Committee was insufficient to support a claim of qualified immunity. Only a study, they argued, of the curved track at the Spring Street station would be sufficient.
There are 472 stations on the subway system. Of the 472 stations, according to the Transit Authority, at least 50 stations have curved tracks. The Transit Authority argues that the Speed Policy Committee’s studies were adequate to meet the Turturro test; Pedraza and Martinez argue the opposite.
The resolution of the Pedraza and Martinez cases could have a significant impact on future speeds and services provided by the Transit Authority. The Transit Authority is currently spending billions of dollars on signals and other improvements to increase speed. The subway system is designed to carry more than 5 million passengers a day. To reach those numbers, some lines will approach headways of two minutes with a throughput of as many as 30 trains an hour. The low speeds advocated by the expert called by Pedraza and Martinez for Spring Street and presumably many other stations, are plainly inconsistent with the overall efficiency of the subways. They are, in effect, arguing that slow speeds are required on the assumption that behind every curve there may be an unconscious person lying on the tracks. It is precisely to avoid such conclusions that the courts developed the doctrine of qualified immunity.
By: Ross Sandler (Ross Sandler is a Professor of Law and Director of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.)