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Capaldo v. Reimer

Decided: November 21, 1962.


Goldmann, Freund and Foley.

Per Curiam

In this negligence case we granted defendant Norma Reimer leave to appeal from a jury finding of liability on her part following a trial limited to that issue. The jury exonerated defendant W. Howard Reimer, finding that his wife Norma was not acting in his behalf at the time of the accident.

The action arose from an accident which occurred on September 9, 1958 at about 3:15 P.M., when a truck owned by Jaeger & Germaine Oil Company, and operated by Edmund Capaldo, collided with a passenger vehicle operated by Mrs. Reimer. Albert F. Germaine was a passenger on the truck. He filed a complaint to recover damages against W. Howard Reimer, owner of the passenger vehicle, joining also Mrs. Reimer and Capaldo. The Reimers cross-claimed against Capaldo. Capaldo filed a separate personal injury action against the Reimers, and the cases were consolidated for trial.

From a factual standpoint the crux of the case was of narrow compass. Capaldo contended that the truck was being operated in a northerly direction on Pleasant Valley Way, West Orange, N.J., which was then about 30 feet wide and divided into two lanes by a double white line, and bordered on each side by a five-foot gravel shoulder. Capaldo intended to make a service call at a house on the easterly side of the roadway. When the truck was about 100 feet from the driveway of that property Capaldo gave a right-hand signal with the mechanical lights of his truck and turned into the driveway. When approximately one-third of the truck was within the driveway it was struck in the rear by the Reimer car.

Mrs. Reimer testified that, accompanied by her four infant children the oldest of whom was 8 1/2 years of age, she was proceeding in the same direction and at the same speed as the truck, about 100 to 200 feet to the rear of it. She was driving in the center of the northbound lane; the truck was proceeding slightly to the left of the center of that lane. She went on to say that her attention was attracted to the truck when it slowed down and bore to its left. She continued at the same speed, under the impression that the change of course of the

truck indicated that the driver intended to enter a driveway on the westerly side of the roadway. She claimed that the truck had gone so far to the left that its right tires were on the center line. The next thing she knew the truck turned in front of her. She applied her brakes; the front of her car struck the right side of the truck.

The only other witness was Germaine, who supported Capaldo's version and expressly denied that the truck had first gone to its left before making the right turn. In this respect his testimony conflicted substantially with his pretrial deposition. There, Germaine testified that Capaldo "pulled, perhaps, four or five foot to the left to go into a spiral driveway" and that he had turned left "maybe * * * twenty-five or thirty feet" before reaching the driveway, while travelling "fifteen, twenty miles an hour." On that occasion he also said that Capaldo made a left-turn signal when he began to turn left, and a right-turn signal when he turned right and into the driveway on the easterly side of the road.

Initially, defendant challenges the failure of the trial court to charge proximate cause in its main charge, and the insufficiency, inadequacy and lack of clarity of a definition of proximate cause given by the trial judge when, following defense counsel's objection to the charge, the jury was recalled for further instructions. Defendant maintains that in the total circumstances the court erroneously withdrew the issue of proximate cause from the jury's consideration.

It is, of course, fundamental that in a negligence case the components of liability are twofold, i.e. , negligence on the part of the parties and causal connection between such negligence and the accident. See 2 Harper and James, Law of Torts, p. 1108 (1956). Proximate cause has been defined as the efficient cause -- the one that necessarily sets the other causes in operation. It is the act or omission which directly brings about the happening complained of, in the absence of which such happening would not have occurred. Vadurro v. Yellow Cab Co. of Camden , 8 N.J. Super. 208, 212 (App. Div. 1950), affirmed 6 N.J. 102 (1950). A careful examination

of the main charge reveals that in only one place did the trial court make even a passing reference to proximate causation. This was done in connection with the discussion of contributory negligence, and even there the court did not define proximate cause or key its legal meaning to the facts of the case. When at the conclusion of the charge defense counsel objected, the judge agreed that there had been an omission and stated he would charge "proximate cause." The jury was then recalled and the following took place:

"I have been asked to charge you further on a subject which I thought that I had covered sufficiently without specifically using the words, proximate causation, two words in the law that I detest and consider largely meaningless. But it is the law that a party who is charged with negligence is not responsible for the results of his acts which are remote and far from the occurrence itself but only for those which will follow ...

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