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Burke v. Auto Mart Inc.

Decided: October 27, 1955.


Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, J.A.D.


Plaintiffs were the driver of and passengers in a motor car which was involved in a collision on August 23, 1952 with an automobile then operated by the defendant Moore, sold to him by the defendant Auto Mart, Inc. ("Auto Mart" hereinafter) on August 9, 1952. The action is brought to recover for damages to the Burke car and for personal injuries to the occupants. Moore did not answer or defend at the trial. Auto Mart, a used-car dealer in Elizabeth, defended primarily on the ground that it had sold, delivered and received payment for the car prior to the accident and that it had nothing to do with Moore or his operation of the car at the time, whether as principal or in any other connection. But the vehicle bore Auto Mart's dealer registration plates, these having been loaned to Moore to permit his taking delivery on August 9 pending clearance of the title papers through the New York and New Jersey motor vehicle agency offices. Auto Mart had purchased the vehicle, a used car, from a New York dealer August 2, 1952. The New Jersey statutory certificate of ownership of the car did not issue to Auto Mart until September 18, 1952 and it executed the assignment thereof to Moore the next day.

Plaintiffs' contention at the trial was that title to the car was in Auto Mart when the accident occurred and that Moore's operation of it under the circumstances raised an issue for the jury as to whether the presumption of agency and operation on Auto Mart's business, consequent upon the condition of the title and the use of the dealer plates, had been successfully met by that defendant. The trial judge granted a motion for dismissal on its behalf. He stated that he found legal title in Auto Mart and, in effect, equitable title in Moore as of the date of the accident and that the presumption that Moore was the agent of Auto Mart and acting on its business had been rebutted by the proofs submitted by the latter. The jury found against Moore and in favor of the Burkes in various amounts.

Plaintiffs' appeal from the order of dismissal as to Auto Mart was frankly based at the argument primarily on the

theory, in substance, that the law should impute a vicarious principal-agent relationship to Auto Mart and Moore in this situation as a matter of public policy, in order to provide an additional sanction against the conceded violations in this transaction of the salutary provisions of our statutes regulating the registration, use and transfer of title to motor vehicles.

Indubitably the loan of the dealer plates to Moore to expedite delivery was in violation of the statute. Such plates may be placed only on a vehicle owned by the dealer and a violation is punishable by a fine not to exceed $100. N.J.S.A. 39:3-18. Upon transfer of ownership the registration of a motor vehicle expires and the seller is required to remove the registration plates and notify the commissioner of the name and address of the purchaser. N.J.S.A. 39:3-30. Every resident of the State whose automobile is driven in this State is required to register it before it is driven on the public highways. N.J.S.A. 39:3-4. In every sale of a used car the seller is to execute and deliver to the purchaser an assignment of the certificate of ownership, N.J.S.A. 39:10-9, and the purchaser, within ten days after purchase, must submit evidence of purchase to the director of the Division of Motor Vehicles. N.J.S.A. 39:10-11. All of these penal requirements were violated in the sale of this car to Moore. N.J.S.A. 39:10-5 provides:

"No person shall sell or purchase any motor vehicle in this state, except in the manner and subject to the conditions provided in this chapter."

What are the consequences of these violations in terms of liability of Auto Mart to plaintiffs for Moore's negligence?

Efforts to hold violators of motor vehicle regulatory statutes for damages for injuries consequent upon the operation of automobiles or to preclude their right of recovery for damages caused by the negligence of others have almost always been rebuffed where no causal relation was discernible between violation and accident. For example, it is the general rule that one is not precluded from recovery by mere

reason of operation of a car without a license or of a deficiency in the registration of the vehicle. Annotation , 163 A.L.R. 1375, and earlier annotations cited therein. By the great weight of authority automobile registration statutes create only a public duty and do not render an unlicensed driver or the driver of an unregistered vehicle liable to or without recourse against those with whom he collides if he is otherwise exercising proper care. Prosser on Torts (1941) § 39, pp. 266, 267. Generally and in New Jersey such results are posited on absence of proximate cause between the violation of the statute and the accident. 5 Am. Jur., Automobiles , § 144, p. 588; Muller v. West Jersey & Seashore R.R. Co. , 99 N.J.L. 186, 188, 189 (E. & A. 1923); Ross v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co. , 106 N.J.L. 536 (E. & A. 1930); Renner v. Martin , 116 N.J.L. 240 (E. & A. 1936). Compare the same approach in the analogous situation of violation of statutory regulations concerning the size of a vehicle. See Formichella v. Layton , 25 N.J. Super. 1, 3 (App. Div. 1953). Prosser points out that the more pertinent rationale is the absence of legislative intent to protect against negligence, but, rather, to subserve entirely different objects (op. cit. supra, pp. 267, 268), as, e.g. , preventing theft and traffic in stolen automobiles. See Merchants' Securities Corp. v. Lane , 106 N.J.L. 576, 578 (E. & A. 1930). The limitation of scope of liability implied in such a view has been obliquely criticized. Effect of Penal Statutes on Civil Liability , 32 Columbia L. Rev. 712, 716, 717 (1935). See also, in reference to civil liability arising from operation of an automobile in violation of regulatory statutes, 1 Blashfield, Cyclopedia of Automobile Law and Practice (1948), §§ 591-604, pp. 422-457; 2 Stevenson, Negligence in the Atlantic States (1954), § 679, pp. 1030, 1031.

Massachusetts alone has developed the philosophy that an unregistered or improperly registered motor vehicle is a nuisance and its operator a trespasser on the highway with the corollary that anyone responsible for its presence on the ...

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