September 29, 2023
Words have different meanings, and thus consequences. Some believe that lawyers have a reputation for being “nitpicky” about the precise meaning of certain words, and that reputation is well-earned. If baseball is a game of inches, lawyering is a profession of syllables. The slightest difference in definition can affect the outcome of a legal proceeding.
For lawyers, the definition of a term can come from several different sources including, but not limited to, a dictionary. That’s right – judges and lawyers have pulled the Merriam-Webster on the bookshelf to help identify the plain meaning of a term as it has come to be accepted through the years. Another source of definitions can come from a statute.
What is a statute? It is not the granite or marble structure made out to resemble a person or thing or animal; that is a statue.
A statute is a law created by elected lawmakers, who assemble as a legislative body to devise, vote on, and ultimately pass laws. Some of those laws govern or prohibit certain conduct. A law which prohibits driving while intoxicated is one example of a statute. Another example of a statute is a law which provides a legal definition for a certain term. This is known as a statutory definition.
There are many different statutory definitions within many different areas of law. One area of law that affects most people on a daily basis is the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Article 1 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, which includes paragraphs 1 through 161, is known as “Words and Phrases Defined.” This Article contains a list of statutory definitions, ranging alphabetically from “Access highway” to “Work area.”
As we have already covered in these pages, the unexcused violation of a statute like one in the Vehicle and Traffic Law is known as negligence per se. If someone can prove that a motorist violated a rule of the road as contained in the Vehicle and Traffic Law, that will generally establish a prima facie case of negligence.
An experienced New York personal injury lawyer who is looking to help someone recover maximum compensation for pain and suffering after a car crash will always look for ways to establish liability. Negligence per se is a powerful tool that allows one to dispense with the ordinary requirements of establishing the elements of negligence, including duty and breach, because they are subsumed in and implied by the statute.
Let’s consider one statute, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1141, which governs a vehicle “turning left”
The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection or into an alley, private road, or driveway shall yield the right of way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.
As you can see, this statute contains a number of different words which must be defined before someone can determine whether all of the elements of the statute are satisfied.
Most people have a general idea of what qualifies as an “intersection” on the road, but the Vehicle and Traffic Law has a precise, technical definition in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 120 (a) which includes, but is not limited to, “[t]he area embraced within the prolongation or connection of the lateral curb lines, or, if none, then the lateral boundary lines of the roadways of two highways which join one another at, or approximately at, right angles, or the area within which vehicles traveling upon different highways joining at any other angle may come in conflict.” (emphasis added).
This definition of “intersection” begets other definitions, such as a “highway,” which is defined in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 118 to mean “[t]he entire width between the boundary lines of every way publicly maintained when any part thereof is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.”
Statutory interpretation can get complicated. Terms and definitions once taken for granted, can cause considerable controversy, often directly affecting the outcome of a given case.
When necessary to achieve a positive outcome for clients, the attorneys at William Mattar, P.C. have extensive experience interpreting various statutes and building logical arguments to help clients receive the best outcome possible. If you were involved in a New York motor vehicle crash and are looking for an experienced attorney, please do not hesitate to contact the attorney at William Mattar, P.C.