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Adams v. Atlantic City Electric Co.

Decided: May 11, 1938.


On appeal from the Atlantic County Circuit Court.

For the appellant, Thompson & Hanstein (Walter Hanstein and Mark Townsend, of counsel).

For the respondents, Garrison & Weaver (William I. Garrison, of counsel).


The opinion of the court was delivered by

PERSKIE, J. This is an action in tort. Appellant, Atlantic City Electric Company, who was the defendant below, appeals

from a judgment, on a jury verdict originally in the sum of $40,000, in favor of the infant plaintiff, Mary Jane Adams, for personal injuries which she sustained while an occupant of an automobile which collided with a pole belonging to appellant, and which pole carried wires for the transmission of electricity of high voltage. On a rule to show cause, upon the sole ground that it was excessive, the verdict was reduced to $30,000, and as so reduced was formally accepted for the infant plaintiff. Appellant also appeals from the judgment, based upon the verdict of $1,464.80 returned by the same jury in favor of the father of the infant, Raymond I. Adams, for his consequential damages.

John Adams, a minor, was graduated from the Atlantic City high school. His cousin, Emily Finley, who resided near Cape May Court House, New Jersey, was also graduated. Emily's mother planned a joint party at her home to celebrate the graduation of both children. Notwithstanding the fact that John was affected with "valvular lesions of the heart" and had been forbidden by his physician to drive an automobile (although a few days before the accident his physician told him that as between driving to Philadelphia or Cape May, he had better drive to Cape May), John did in the late afternoon of June 17th, 1936, drive a car, owned by his father, and used for business and family pleasure, to attend the party at his cousin's home. John had his father's consent. With John were his mother, Mary A. Adams, who sat on the front seat, and his sister, Mary Jane Adams, about thirteen years of age, who sat on the rear seat. In order to reach his cousin's home John had to and did travel part of the way over state highway No. 4, from Swainton to Cape May Court House. This highway, it appears, is surfaced with concrete to a width of about twenty feet. On each side of the concrete there is a gravel shoulder to the width of about seven feet which, on the day in question, was surfaced with either some road oil or bituminous substance that rendered the shoulders fit and suitable for vehicular traffic.

Appellant is engaged in the business of selling electric power or current; it conducts its business, among other

places, in Cape May county. In the pursuit of its business, appellant erected, maintained and controlled certain poles upon which were strung wires for the purpose of transmitting its electric current along state highway No. 4. It also maintained substations at Ocean View, about seven and one-half miles from the scene of the accident, hereinafter described, and at Wildwood and Cape May. The current, estimated at sixty-six thousand volts, is generated at its main plant at Deepwater, on the Delaware river. At the Ocean View substation it was reduced to twenty-two thousand volts and sent over the transmission lines to the Wildwood and Cape May substations, where it terminates in circuit breakers protected by relays, and where the current was further reduced to 440-220-110 volts, being the amount suitable for home and store use. The interconnecting lines between Ocean View, Wildwood and Cape May substations are known as a loop circuit. This loop circuit provides alternative service from the Ocean View substation to either the Cape May or Wildwood substation. Thus if the Wildwood line from the Ocean View substation is disconnected at both ends, electric power is supplied to the Wildwood substation over the Cape May line. Similarly, if the Cape May line is disconnected at both ends, current would be supplied from the Ocean View substation over the Wildwood line. Each of these substations contains modern, automatic oil circuit breakers operating upon relays and thus connected with the lines. These relays, operating through electric impulses, are of two kinds, one known as a time delayed relay and the other as an instantaneous relay. Their function is to open the circuit breaker and de-energize the line when a fault or abnormality on the line occurs.

As John, his mother and sister were riding along said highway No. 4, and about seven and one-half miles from the Ocean View substation, the car for some unexplained and unproved reason, skidded or turned off the road to the right, into a filed or grass plot, then took a diagonal or southeasterly course back towards the roadway, but before reaching it, collided with appellant's pole No. 1382. This pole was set within the fifty-foot right of way of said highway and one

and nine-tenths feet west from the westerly edge of the gravel shoulder and usable part of the highway. It was a western red cedar pole, forty-five feet in length, weighed one thousand one hundred pounds, carried three cross-arms on which rested six No. 2/0 bare copper wires of a tensile strength of five thousand two hundred and twenty-six pounds, carrying twenty-two thousand volts of electricity. The lowest wire was thirty-six feet six inches above the ground level. As a result of the impact between the car and the pole, the pole was fractured and splintered at a point about five feet above the ground and the base thereof was moved one and one-half feet, thus causing a hole in which the front right wheel of the car rested. The front axle and running board of the car rested upon the ground and jammed up against the pole which had a lightning rod affixed thereto.

The results to the occupants of the car were tragic. The car became highly energized, by reason of the electric current passing through it to the ground. The mother died before she was removed from the car, and there was evidence indicating that she sustained a broken neck and a fracture of the base of her skull. John died two days later without ever regaining consciousness. Mary Jane was so horribly burned by electricity that the second, third, fourth and fifth fingers of her left hand dropped off at the first joint and all the toes of her right foot dropped off completely, devitalizing the tissues. In addition, she was otherwise severely burned in and about her limbs and body. A plastic operation was necessary and performed. The skin was pulled over the end of the fingers and toes so that they would be made reasonably presentable.

We mark the fact that as a result of this accident, which happened on June 17th, 1936, about six P.M. (D.S.T.), two separate suits were instituted. In one suit, Mary Jane Adams, by her father as next friend, sued for the injuries which she sustained; the father sued for the consequential damages which he sustained. The father also sued as administrator ad prosequendum for the alleged wrongful death of his wife. In the other suit John J. Palmer sued to recover for the injuries which he suffered as the result of electric burns

while in the humane act of attempting to extricate the mother from the car. No action was instituted for the death of John. The two suits were tried together. The jury returned verdicts in the amounts already stated in favor of the infant plaintiff and her father; it returned a verdict of no cause of action for the death of the mother. From that judgment there is no appeal. It also returned a verdict of $25,000 in favor of Palmer which, on a rule ...

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