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Mockler v. Russman

Decided: September 18, 1968.

ANNA MOCKLER AND ERWIN MOCKLER, HER HUSBAND, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
JOHN RUSSMAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



Conford, Collester and Labrecque. The opinion of the court was delivered by Collester, J.A.D.

Collester

In this personal injury automobile negligence action plaintiffs Anna Mockler and her husband Erwin Mockler appeal from a judgment entered in the Law Division following a jury verdict of no cause for action in favor of defendants John Russman and Joseph Lorusso. Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial was denied.

Mrs. Mockler was injured on January 24, 1966 when a school bus owned by Russman and operated by Lorusso struck the rear of her car which was stopped in the northbound lane of Washington Avenue, a two-lane road, at the intersection of Hickory Avenue in Bergenfield. She brought suit to recover damages for her injuries and her husband joined per quod.

The accident occurred at about 8:15 A.M. and it is undisputed that a thin layer of snow covered the roads in the area causing them to be slippery. Mrs. Mockler had stopped her car in the intersection of Hickory Avenue preparatory to turning left to enter her employer's parking lot. Her directional signal was operating and she was awaiting a break in the southbound traffic on Washington Avenue before making her turn. While thus stopped she observed through her rearview mirror defendants' bus as it approached and struck her car in the rear. Mary Heil, a school crossing guard who was standing on the corner of the intersection, saw the collision. She said that the school bus was not going very fast and estimated its speed to be about 10 to 20 miles an hour, "if that."

Defendant Lorusso testified that he had been driving the school bus since 7 A.M. and knew that the roads were slippery due to the covering of a thin layer of snow. He had made a stop at the Dumont School and had three student passengers in the bus, one of whom he had picked up two blocks before he stopped at the school. He intended to pick up three more students who were awaiting him at the intersection of Hickory and Washington Avenues and thereafter intended to drive his passengers to the Holy Angels School. He said that he had not skidded when he had stopped the bus previous to the accident. Lorusso testified that he first saw plaintiffs' car stopped at the Hickory Avenue intersection when he was about a block and a half to its rear on Washington Avenue. He said he was driving at a speed of about 10 miles per hour and when he reached a point 50 feet to the rear of plaintiffs' car he applied his brakes. He testified that the bus skidded and that although he turned his wheel to the right in an attempt to steer it between the Mockler car and the right hand curb, the bus kept going straight and struck the rear of plaintiffs' vehicle.

Plaintiffs first contend that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and that the trial court erred in denial of their motion for a new trial. They argue that defendant

Lorusso knew of the hazardous road conditions because he had been driving the school bus for some time before the accident; that having observed plaintiffs' stationary vehicle when he was one and a half blocks to its rear he negligently failed to apply his brakes until he was 50 feet behind it, and that when he applied his brakes and turned his wheel to the right in an attempt to pass plaintiffs' car he was guilty of negligence -- otherwise the accident would not have happened. They assert that the test of whether Lorusso was operating the bus in a reasonable and prudent manner under the circumstances existing was whether he could stop the bus without striking plaintiffs' stopped vehicle. Implicit in their argument is the contention that the skidding of the bus, where the driver had knowledge of the slippery condition of the road, of and by itself was conclusive evidence of negligence.

It has been generally held by courts in other jurisdictions that the skidding of an automobile is not in itself sufficient to justify an inference of negligence on the part of the operator of the motor vehicle. Smith v. Baltimore Transit Co., 214 Md. 560, 136 A. 2 d 386, 390 (Ct. App. 1957); James v. Von Schuckman, 115 Conn. 490, 162 A. 3, 4 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1932); Hoch v. Doughty, 224 A. 2 d 54, 56 (Me. Sup. Jud. Ct. 1966); Davin v. Levin, 357 Pa. 554, 55 A. 2 d 364, 55 A. 2 d 364 (Sup. Ct. 1947); L'Ecuyer v. Farnsworth, 106 Vt. 180, 170 A. 677 (Vt. Sup. Ct. 1934). See also Annotation, "Automobiles -- Skidding," 58 A.L.R. 264, 266 (1929); 113 A.L.R. 1002, 1005 (1938); 2 Stevenson, Law of Negligence, ยง 662, pp. 1007-08 (1954). Should the rule be otherwise every automobile driver would be compelled to stay off the public roads when such roads happened to be slippery. It is common knowledge that the sudden and unexpected skidding of an automobile is one of the natural hazards of driving on icy roads and that it may befall even the most cautious of drivers. If such a driver is operating his car as would a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances, he is not to be held negligent

merely because his car skidded, resulting in damage or injury to another. However, skidding may be evidence of negligence if it appears that it was caused by the failure of the driver to take reasonable precautions to avoid it, when conditions of which he knew or should have known made such a result probable in the absence of such precautions.

It is well-settled law that a recovery for damages cannot be had merely upon proof of the happening of an accident. Negligence is never presumed; it, or the circumstantial basis for the inference of it, must be established by competent proof presented by plaintiff. Whether such proof exists is preeminently a question ...


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