Goldmann, Kolovsky and Carton. The opinion of the court was delivered by Carton, J.A.D. Kolovsky, J.A.D. (dissenting).
This case involves the interplay of the collateral estoppel doctrine and the rules governing contribution between joint tortfeasors.
Two automobiles, operated respectively by Erna Grotz and Frank Miraglia, and travelling in opposite directions on Route 17, collided when the Grotz car was about to make a left turn across that road into a restaurant parking lot. Mrs. Grotz was alone. Gino and Fausto Miraglia were passengers in the Miraglia car.
Mrs. Grotz and Frank Miraglia filed personal injury actions against each other, each charging the other with negligence while denying any contributory negligence on their respective parts. The cases were consolidated for trial and the jury returned a verdict of no cause for action in both suits.
Gino and Fausto Miraglia, by their guardian ad litem , then brought a personal injury action against both drivers. Both drivers denied negligence and filed cross-claims against each other for contribution under the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Act (N.J.S. 2 A:53 A -1 et seq.). Mrs. Grotz moved for summary judgment on her cross-claim for contribution, seeking a ruling that the judgment in the prior actions between Mrs. Grotz and Frank Miraglia established that each was negligent, thereby rendering Frank liable for one-half of any amount which might be recovered by Frank's brothers against Mrs. Grotz. The motion was denied as premature.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the passengers against Mrs. Grotz and a verdict of no cause for action
against Frank. In answer to special interrogatories, the jury found that Mrs. Grotz was negligent while Frank Miraglia was not.
Judgment was then entered accordingly, including a judgment in Frank's favor and against Mrs. Grotz on her cross-claim. During the course of the trial, the judge had denied a renewal of Mrs. Grotz' motion that she was entitled to contribution as a matter of law.
She appeals from the judgment denying her cross-claim for contribution. She does not challenge the judgment in favor of the plaintiff-passengers which she has satisfied.
The gist of appellant's contention -- advanced under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel -- is that the jury verdicts in the drivers' reciprocal actions necessarily included a finding that Frank Miraglia's negligence was a cause of the accident, thereby precluding either from litigating the question of negligence anew. Specifically, that finding of Frank's negligence, she asserts, established Frank to be a joint tortfeasor and removed that issue from consideration in the passengers' later action. This must be so, she maintains, irrespective of the jury's determination as to the passengers' claim against the drivers.
Resolution of the question posed requires that we consider first the nature of the right of contribution. Since that right is of statutory origin, the contribution claimant must, of course, show compliance with the statutory requirements of the Joint Tortfeasors Act, N.J.S. 2 A:53 A -1 et seq.
Section 3 provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
"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 join tortfeasors for the excess so paid over his pro rata share * * *"
Prerequisite to relief under the act is a demonstration that the person seeking to enforce the right of contribution, as well as the one from whom contribution is sought, are joint tortfeasors. Section 1 of the act defines "joint tortfeasors" as "two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them." The right of contribution accrues under the statute when the injured third person has brought action and recovers judgment against one or more of the joint tortfeasors and the latter has paid the judgment in whole or in part.
The Supreme Court in Sattelberger v. Telep , 14 N.J. 353 (1954), described the contribution claimant's right and the burden of proof cast upon him:
"Under the statute, contribution is enforceable only against a joint tortfeasor as therein defined; and so, by the very nature of the right and the correlative obligation, it is incumbent on the contribution claimant in a case such as this to establish a common liability for the wrongful act, neglect or default made the basis of the judgment and the quantum of the damages ensuing from the joint offense. The plaintiff must prove that he and the defendant in contribution are in aequali jure; he cannot prevail unless the injured person also had a cause of action for the tortious injury against the defendant called on for contribution. * * * The onus of proof of the common burden is on the plaintiff demanding the sharing of the burden." (at p. 367).
But it does not follow that because the right of contribution accrues only after the injured third person has obtained a judgment against the alleged joint tortfeasors, resolution of the issues giving rise to that right may not occur prior to the injured party's action. General principles of law applicable to other legal proceedings, including the doctrines of res judicata and ...