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Clayton v. Jersey Central Power and Light Co.

Decided: May 21, 1952.


Eastwood, Bigelow and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J.c.c.


Trial of this action resulted in jury verdicts of $25,000 in favor of the plaintiff, Nettie Clayton, for her personal injuries, and $5,000 for Bert Clayton, her husband, to cover his derivative losses. Defendant applied to the trial court for a new trial, contending that the verdicts were contrary to the weight of the evidence. The application was denied and this appeal is now prosecuted. Here the grounds urged for reversal are that no negligence was proved against the defendant, that the injuries suffered by Mrs. Clayton were not the natural and proximate result of the act of defendant's agent, that the verdicts were contrary to the weight of the evidence and that the trial court erroneously allowed certain questions to be answered.

Our study of the record has led to the conclusion that evidence was adduced at the trial from which the jury might legitimately and naturally find the following facts: The plaintiffs resided in a single floor bungalow in Neptune Township, New Jersey, and obtained their gas and electric service from the defendant. On September 14, 1949, the defendant, claiming that a gas and electricity bill was overdue and unpaid, sent its employee to their home with instructions to collect the bill or shut off the service. The collector, who had been there in July on a similar mission, arrived shortly after noon, rang the door-bell, and Mrs. Clayton appeared. After explaining his mission, she advised him that the bill had been paid and that she had the receipts in the dining room server.

This conversation took place at the front porch. The next room, proceeding from front to rear is the living room, then the dining room, and last the kitchen, where the defendant's

meter and control switch were located. Between the living and dining rooms is an open archway; opposite the archway, on the other side of the dining room and slightly to the left, is the kitchen door. A person standing in the living room and looking toward the rear of the house would have a clear view into the dining room and kitchen, and in walking from the living room to the kitchen he would pass very near the server referred to.

The collector followed Mrs. Clayton into the house and she obtained some receipts from the server. They were handed to him. After some discussion he threw them to the floor and said he was going to shut off the electricity as he had orders to do. She was between him and the kitchen and he undertook to pass by her to get there. In doing so he either negligently pushed or knocked or brushed her out of his path, with the result that she was thrown to the dining room floor and lost consciousness. On coming to she was on the floor, alone in the house, and apparently unable to rise. A telephone was on a desk next to the server; she took hold of the wire, pulled it to the floor, and telephoned her son.

Such a finding is supported not only by the substance of the injured plaintiff's testimony, but by the corroborative statements of other witnesses. The son, who was telephoned, came home immediately and found his mother on the dining room floor with the telephone beside her. He picked her up and put her on a couch in the living room where she remained until a physician came to see her.

Phyllis Gant, a granddaughter-in-law, and a Sara Miller (whose name was Sadler at the time of trial because of a remarriage), Mrs. Gant's stepmother, were in the Clayton home when defendant's representative arrived to collect the bill. Mrs. Sadler testified for the defendant and adversely to the plaintiffs on some important aspects of the case and her credibility was attacked sharply in an effort to show animosity and ill feeling toward the Claytons. In any event, both Mrs. Gant and Mrs. Sadler testified that Mrs. Clayton obtained some bills and handed them to the collector. According

to Mrs. Sadler there was some further discussion and he was asked to look them over. He said it was no concern of his and that he wasn't going to do it. "At the same time" he put his hand on her shoulder as "she was going to hand him the bills" * * * "and the bills did go to the floor." Mrs. Gant said the collector was using a "loud voice" and was not "talking very nice"; she did not know "whether he threw them or whether he just slung them or what he did but anyway they landed on the floor." When this occurred Mrs. Clayton, who was very excited and nervous, asked Mrs. Sadler to take Mrs. Gant in her car and get Mr. Clayton who was working a short distance from home. At this request they set out to do so.

The principal witness for the defense was the collector and his statements were in direct contradiction of the injured plaintiff. He denied ever striking her, pushing her aside, or knocking her down as he attempted to enter the kitchen. He said she told him her husband probably had the receipts with him, whereupon he left, saying that he would stop back later after she had communicated with her husband by phone. However, his testimony in important details might well have led the jury to be skeptical of his credibility. He didn't remember whether there were any other persons in the house while he was there; he didn't think he said anything about disconnecting the service if the bill was not paid. He conceded she went to look for receipted bills but he did not remember that she produced any; "she might have had some"; he wouldn't deny that bills were on the floor; he didn't remember putting a hand on her shoulder or touching her; "I didn't put my hands on her in any way that would cause her to fall or anything to hurt her in any way, and if I did, it was in the matter of conversation, which I doubt"; but he would not deny that he put his hands on her.

The irreconcilable conflict in the testimony on the whole case created a typical jury problem and the trial court properly submitted it to the jury for determination. In reviewing ...

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