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Forker v. Pomponio

Decided: March 14, 1960.


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


[60 NJSuper Page 281] Plaintiff sustained personal injuries and her automobile was damaged as a result of being struck in the rear while standing at a street intersection in Haddon Township, waiting for a vehicle ahead of her to make a left

turn. The owner of the car which was in collision with plaintiff's vehicle was the defendant Pomponio, who was riding in the front seat of the car alongside the driver, the defendant Rice, the latter the holder of a learner's temporary permit to drive. The trial judge, sitting in the Camden County District Court without a jury, found for the plaintiff against both defendants in the amount of $1,437.35. The defendant Rice was found negligent in operation of the car and the defendant Pomponio in supervising Rice. Only Pomponio appeals.

The first ground of appeal is that the finding that Rice was the operator of the motor vehicle was error in view of plaintiff's testimony that Pomponio told her that he was the driver. There is no merit in the argument. The complaint and the plaintiff's answers to interrogatories were to the effect that Rice was the driver, and Pomponio so testified when called as plaintiff's witness.

The second point urged is that there is no evidence of negligence in the operation of the overtaking vehicle. Since the present appeal is only by Pomponio, the proposition urged is not necessarily material insofar as he is concerned. The critical question is whether he was negligent in supervising the permit holder in his charge, resulting proximately in the accident. LaRosa v. Livezey , 109 N.J.L. 162, 163 (E. & A. 1932).

There is no suggestion that plaintiff was herself in any way negligent. She testified she had stopped about a minute when she was struck; she did not stop suddenly. After the accident, Pomponio walked over to her car, said he was the driver and told her he would pay for the damage. Pomponio, called by plaintiff, said he knew that Rice held a permit. Testifying on his own behalf, he said he was sitting in the front as the licensed driver. Rice was driving at from 5 to 7 miles per hour because the other car "was going slow." When the other car came to a stop, the Rice car was 8 or 10 feet behind. There was heavy traffic at the time. When asked if he was observing the operation of

the vehicle he said, "I saw he was driving all right the machine."

Rice was not present at the trial, being then in military service, but he was represented by counsel.

N.J.S.A. 39:3-13 provides that a person to whom a learner's permit has been issued may operate a motor vehicle in this State "while in the company and under the supervision of a licensed motor vehicle driver," and, further, that such permit "shall be sufficient license for the person to operate an automobile * * * while in the company of and under the control of a licensed motor vehicle driver of this State." The section also provides that the licensed driver shall be liable for all violations of the Motor Vehicle Act committed by the permittee. While it is clear that the last cited provision does not impose tort liability on the licensee for the negligence of the permittee in operating the vehicle, LaRosa v. Livezey, supra (109 N.J.L. , at page 163); see also Sardo v. Herlihy , 143 Misc. 397, 256 N.Y.S. 690 (Sup. Ct. 1932), and Wolpert v. Garrett , 278 App. Div. 893, 105 N.Y.S. 2 d 21 (1951) (construing a similar New York statute); and cf. Roberts v. Craig , 124 Cal. App. 2 d 202, 268 P. 2 d 500, 502-503, 43 A.L.R. 2 d 1146 (Dist. Ct. App. 1954), the first-quoted statutory provisions nevertheless specify the substance of the duty necessarily undertaken by one who accompanies a permittee as the licensed driver and which is owed by him to the public -- to supervise and control the permittee. In this regard he is to use reasonable judgment and care in exercising such supervision. LaRosa v. Livezey, supra (109 N.J.L. , at page 164). See also Greenie v. Nashua Buick Co. , 85 N.H. 316, 158 A. 817, 818 (Sup. Ct. 1932), in which the court observed that in implementation of the policy of such statutory provisions, "Unless the instructor exercises control over the acts of the learner and the movements of the car, his presence serves no useful purpose so far as the protection of those using the highways is concerned." And see Cullinan v. Kooharian , 51 R.I. 250, 153 A. 877, 878 (Sup. Ct. 1931).

Hence, the licensee's liability is not based upon the imputation to him of the negligence of the permittee. See, contra, Kelley v. Thibodeau , 120 Me. 402, 115 A. 162, 163 (Sup. Jud. Ct. 1921); Reetz v. Mansfield , 119 Conn. 563, 178 A. 53, 55-56 (Sup. Ct. 1935). Nor, obviously, is it negligent merely to permit an unlicensed person to drive -- clearly the statute allows the privilege of teaching one to drive. Ritchie v. Burton , 292 S.W. 2 d 599, 607-608 (Mo. Ct. App. 1956). Rather, the liability of the licensee is predicated only on his independent duty to supervise the permittee, and the sole basis of his liability is negligent supervision -- not necessarily the negligent driving of the learner per se. Thus, although a permittee may not be negligent when the vehicle he is operating is involved in an accident, giving due consideration to his skill, competence and obedience to his instructor's directions, nevertheless the supervising licensee may be negligent, either because his instructions were not reasonable under the circumstances or because he failed to take reasonable measures to observe the danger and attempt to avert it. Greenie v. Nashua Buick Co., supra (158 A. , at page 818); Frye v. Baskin , 231 S.W. 2 d 630, 635 (Mo. Ct. App. 1950). Conversely, the permittee may be negligent and the licensee not, if, under the circumstances, the latter did "all that was required of a reasonably careful person." Cullinan v. Kooharian, supra (153 A. , at page 878); Ritchie v. Burton, supra. Cf. Van Sciver v. Abbott's Alderney Dairies , 6 N.J. Misc. 949, 951 (Sup. Ct. 1928).

The degree of competence of the permittee does not alter the supervisory duty of the licensee. It is merely one of the circumstances which must be taken into account in passing upon the sufficiency of the care of the licensee in directing him. Clearly a driving situation which a licensee might reasonably allow a more experienced permittee to handle would not be appropriate for an absolute novice. See ...

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