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Theobold v. Angelos

Decided: June 3, 1963.


For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J.


This is an automobile negligence case.

Plaintiff Robert Theobold is the owner of certain premises located on Berlin Road, Delaware Township, New Jersey. At about 2:00 A.M. on September 22, 1960 James Anderson was driving his car in an easterly direction on Berlin Road when for some reason, it went out of control, spun around and came to rest partly on Theobold's property and partly on the street. Theobold and his son-in-law, Kenneth Golden, were awakened, dressed themselves, and went outside to investigate the happening. The Delaware Township police were telephoned, and shortly thereafter Officer Leon Angelos appeared on the scene in a police car which he parked near the Anderson vehicle. The exact position occupied by Angelos' car was the subject of dispute in the litigation which followed. It was also alleged later that its dome light was not functioning at the time. Theobold was standing between the Anderson and police cars; Golden was nearby. While the four men were engaged in conversation, Francis X. Conaty, who had been driving along Berlin Road, crashed into the rear of the police car, driving it into Anderson's car and pinning Theobold's legs between the two vehicles. Theobold was severely injured. Golden, Angelos and Anderson also suffered some minor injuries.

Thereafter, Theobold and Golden sought damages from Conaty on account of their injuries and losses. Angelos instituted a similar suit against Conaty. Conaty brought a third-party action seeking contribution from Anderson, Angelos and Delaware Township as joint tort-feasors in the event he should be held liable to Theobold and Golden. Angelos and the township then counterclaimed against Conaty for contribution should they be found liable to Theobold and Golden. Finally, Theobold and Golden amended their original complaint and added Anderson, Angelos and the township as defendants in their action.

Prior to trial, Theobold settled his claim against Conaty and Anderson for $90,000, the former paying $88,500 and the latter $1,500. Golden also made an adjustment with these

defendants, Conaty paying him $1,500 and Anderson $500. A stipulation of dismissal as to Conaty and Anderson was then entered. The case proceeded to trial as to Angelos and the township and resulted in a jury verdict against them of $65,000 for Theobold and of $1,000 for Golden. At plaintiffs' request, the trial court submitted separate written interrogatories to the jury calling for a specific finding whether either Anderson or Conaty was guilty of negligence and if so, whether such negligence was a "concurring and proximate cause of" plaintiffs' injuries. This was done, although as the result of the settlement, the case was not being tried formally against Anderson or Conaty. No issue as to the propriety of such interrogatories is presented here, and decision thereon is expressly reserved. In returning its verdict, the jury answered the questions with a negative finding as to Anderson's negligence, and an affirmative one as to Conaty.

Upon receipt of the verdicts of $65,000 for Theobold and $1,000 for Golden, the trial court undertook to mold them in accordance with his conception of the requirements of section 3 of the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law, N.J.S. 2A:53A-1 et seq. The section provides:

"Where injury or damage is suffered by any person as a result of the wrongful act, neglect or default of joint tortfeasors, and the person so suffering injury or damage recovers a money judgment or judgments for such injury or damage against one or more of the joint tortfeasors, either in one action or in separate actions, and any one of the joint tortfeasors pays such judgment in whole or in part, he shall be entitled to recover contribution from the other joint tortfeasor or joint tortfeasors for the excess so paid over his pro rata share; * * *."

In molding the verdict, he accepted the jury's negative answer to the interrogatory as to Anderson's negligence, and eliminated him as a joint tort-feasor for purposes of adjudging the basis for contribution between Conaty on the one hand and Angelos and the township on the other. The latter two defendants had to be considered as a single tort-feasor. N.J.S. 2A:53A-1. Thus, with two tort-feasors involved, he divided Theobold's verdict of $65,000 into two equal parts of $32,500.

One part, in that amount, he treated as satisfied by the Conaty settlement. Then the $1,500 settlement payment made by Anderson was deducted from the remaining $32,500, and judgment for the balance of $31,000 was entered against Angelos and the township.

The same course was followed with respect to Golden's verdict of $1,000. It, too, was divided in half indicating a liability for purposes of application of the statute, of $500 for Conaty and $500 for the unit, Angelos and the township. Conaty's liability was considered satisfied because of his pretrial settlement of $1,500. Then Anderson's payment of $500 was deducted from the remaining $500 chargeable against Angelos and the township, and Golden's verdict of $1,000 was adjudged satisfied.

Thereafter, Angelos and the township moved for an order directing the clerk of the court to enter a satisfaction of the judgment of $31,000 outstanding against them. The application was based upon the ground that the plaintiff Theobold was entitled to be compensated once for his injuries, and since he received from Conaty and Anderson $90,000, or $25,000 in excess of what the jury had assessed by its verdict as reasonable compensation for his injuries and losses, i.e., $65,000, the judgment record should be marked satisfied. Obviously, if the motion prevailed, Angelos and the township would be relieved of any financial obligation toward Theobold.

Plaintiff Theobold countered with a motion for a new trial as to damages only, or in the alternative for an order amending the record to reflect as an outstanding judgment the full verdict of $65,000. The latter portion of the motion was predicated upon the contention that, as the result of the trial court's charge, the jury had mistakenly understood it was to decide upon the sum representing just compensation for the plaintiff, then divide it among the number of tort-feasors it found responsible, and return a verdict accordingly against ...

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