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Mazzilli v. Selger

Decided: December 9, 1952.

LOUIS MAZZILLI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ADAM SELGER AND FRANCES SELGER, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND KENNETH SELGER, DEFENDANT-CROSS-APPELLANT



Eastwood, Goldmann and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J.c.c. (temporarily assigned).

Francis

On April 21, 1949 the cross-appellant Kenneth Selger, an infant nine years and ten months of age, fired a shotgun and wounded appellant Louis Mazzilli. Mazzilli then sued him for compensatory and punitive damages, and Adam Selger and Frances Selger, his father and mother, for compensatory damages. The trial court granted the motion of the father and mother for judgment in their favor. The case was submitted to the jury against Kenneth and verdicts of $20,000 for compensatory, and $5,000 for punitive, damages were returned against him.

Mazzilli appeals from the judgment in favor of the parents and Kenneth appeals from the denial of his motion to dismiss the punitive damage count against him.

The record discloses that a corporation of which respondent Adam Selger is president owns a three-acre tract of land on Cedar Avenue, Secaucus, New Jersey. Two small frame houses are situated thereon, separated by upwards of 200 feet. At and prior to the day in question Adam Selger occupied one of the two houses, it being 836 Cedar Avenue; his wife Frances Selger, occupied the other at 880 Cedar

Avenue. Adam lived alone; their son Kenneth, one Jack Phillips, a son of Mrs. Selger by a former marriage, and Mrs. Selger lived together in the other house.

It appears also that Mr. and Mrs. Selger had been separated for some years and that prior to January 6, 1948 she had brought a separate maintenance action against him. On January 6, 1948 an order had been entered therein in which she was awarded $35 weekly for her support and maintenance and for that of their infant son, Kenneth, "in her custody." This order was made retroactive to October 8, 1947. There is no dispute that the parties have remained separated, nor is it disputed that throughout the separation and down to the time of the trial of the present case Kenneth has resided with and been under his mother's control.

Jack Phillips, Mrs. Selger's son by her former marriage, and Kenneth occupied the same bedroom in her home. About two weeks before April 21, 1949 Phillips, who had a license to do so, went hunting with a shotgun. On returning home he cleaned the gun in his bedroom. Then he put it together again and "broke" it. Obviously this means moving the barrel away from the trigger mechanism so that the gun cannot be fired.

Apparently while the shotgun was being cleaned Kenneth was in the room with his half-brother, because Mrs. Selger said she called "her sons in to eat." On doing so Phillips left the broken gun standing in a corner of his room. Mrs. Selger went into the room and on seeing the gun put it on the top shelf of the closet, and according to her "there it stayed." When she put it there she told Phillips not to leave it standing in the corner.

On the day in question appellant was working for Adam Selger, repairing a fence on the property at a point near Mrs. Selger's house. Kenneth and a young companion, Steve Marchuck, were also around the house. According to Marchuck, Kenneth had been talking with Mazzilli about a pocket knife Mazzilli had promised him a few days before. He said Kenneth did not get the knife and "first they were arguing."

Then Kenneth said he "is getting the gun." The boys went into the house; Kenneth got on the bed in his and Phillips's bedroom, climbed up on the bed post, reached into the closet, and removed the shotgun from the shelf where Mrs. Selger had placed it.

Kenneth told Marchuck to get some shells. He looked but did not find them in the drawers. So Kenneth got a cartridge of buckshot from the top drawer of Phillips' dresser and loaded the gun with it.

Marchuck said Kenneth stood at the window and pointed the gun at Mazzilli who ran around the house. It is not clear from Mazzilli's testimony that this incident took place. In any event, his version of the actual shooting was that he observed Kenneth standing in the window with the gun at shoulder level ...


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