The defendant Phyllis M. Crawford moves to set aside a jury verdict awarding compensation for the taking of her property located at the northeast corner of South Clinton and Chestnut Streets, East Orange, New Jersey, for public purposes. On appeal from the award of the condemnation commission, and after a trial de novo , the jury awarded damages of $18,500. The complaint was filed March 15, 1962, which was agreed upon as the date of the taking.
Various reasons were urged in support of the motion. All but one of these were decided adversely to the defendant at the hearing. The question remaining is whether the court unduly restricted the jury's consideration of an executed contract of sale for the premises in question.
The defendant became the owner of the premises in question sometime in 1955. The improvement consisted essentially of two separate large, three-story houses which had been joined together. They had been operated as a rooming house, but this use was discontinued in 1958. In June 1959 she entered into a contract to sell the premises to William S. Eaton and wife for the sum of $23,500. Title was never closed, although Eaton testified that he had been ready, willing and able to take title at the agreed sales price. He retained counsel for the purpose of compelling specific performance of the contract, although it was not clear as to whether suit was actually instituted. In May 1961 it became apparent that the city intended to condemn the property in connection with a street widening project. When the parties failed to agree upon a price, condemnation proceedings were instituted.
There was evidence from which the jury could have concluded that after the making of the contract of sale, and particularly after announcement that the city intended to condemn the property, the property was not kept in repair and was subjected to a considerable amount of vandalism. This took the form of damage to doors, windows, floors, electric fixtures and plumbing, and involved damages from water which was permitted to enter through broken windows. The defendant, however, testified that the premises were, at the time of the institution of proceedings, in substantially the same condition as they had been at the time of the making of the contract and that such repairs as were necessary could have been completed at a cost of approximately $200.
At the trial, evidence as to the execution and delivery of the contract of sale was received over the objection of the city, but in the charge the jury was instructed that it could consider such evidence as bearing on the question of value only in the event that it found the condition of the property at the time of the execution of the contract to be substantially similar to its condition at the time of the taking. The defendant urges that this was error and that the evidence of the sale
having been admitted, the question of the weight to be accorded it should have been submitted to the jury without restriction.
In eminent domain cases the trial judge is allowed wide discretion in determining the admissibility of evidence bearing upon the value of the property taken. N.J. Highway Authority v. Rudd , 36 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 1955); State v. Hudson Circle Service Center, Inc. , 46 N.J. Super. 125, 132 (App. Div. 1957). Proceedings in cases of this nature have been defined as "essentially an informational inquisition in which the boundaries of the inquiry must for pragmatical reasons be liberally entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial judge." N.J. Highway Authority v. Rudd, supra , at page 3.
The majority rule, to which this State adheres, precludes the admission of testimony as to offers to purchase the property prior to the taking. N.J. Turnpike Authority v. Bowley , 27 N.J. 549, 556 (1958); Essex County Park Comm. v. Brokaw , 107 N.J.L. 110, 114 (E. & A. 1930); In re Port of New York Authority , 28 N.J. Super. 575, 583 (App. Div. 1953). The reasons for the adoption of the rule are numerous. The offer might have been made without serious intention or resources to support it. In the actual litigation, the offeror may be unavailable for examination as to his intent, his capacity to perform, or his motivation in offering to purchase the property in question. The opportunities for fraud and collusion are self-evident. It has also been noted that "The offeror may entertain contingencies and terms reserved for later serious discussion." N.J. Turnpike Authority v. Bowley, supra , at page 556. It is urged by the city that the same reasoning applies to contracts of sale, and that the contract in question should have been excluded. Alternatively, it contends that the court properly restricted its consideration by the jury in the manner indicated.
The question of the admissibility, on behalf of the condemnee, of a binding contract for the ...