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Catto v. Schnepp

Decided: February 3, 1972.

ROBERT F. CATTO, AN INFANT, BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, GREGG CATTO, AND GREGG CATTO, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
HOWARD A. SCHNEPP, MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANTS, AND CUMBERLAND COUNTY BOARD OF FREEHOLDERS, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, V. MAX BARBER, THIRD PARTY DEFENDANT. ROBERT F. CATTO, AN INFANT, BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, GREGG CATTO, AND GREGG CATTO, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS, V. HOWARD A. SCHNEPP, MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP (A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY), CUMBERLAND COUNTY BOARD OF FREEHOLDERS (THE GOVERNING BODY OF CUMBERLAND COUNTY), DEFENDANTS, AND MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP, (A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY), THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. HARLEYSVILLE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, AND AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY COMPANY, THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS



Sullivan, Leonard and Carton.

Per Curiam

Plaintiff Robert F. Catto obtained a judgment of $1,000,000 against defendants Maurice River Township and Schnepp for personal injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The jury awarded Catto's father some $37,000 additional for expenses generated by his son's injuries.

The accident occurred shortly after 6 A.M., just before daylight on the morning of March 24, 1967. The pavement was still wet from a rain that had fallen during the night. Plaintiff Catto was heading east on Stage Coach Road in Maurice River Township as he approached a curve. Had he completely negotiated the curve, his car would have faced in a southerly direction. Defendant Schnepp's car, coming from the opposite direction, was traveling north as he entered the same curve. According to Schnepp's co-worker, who was riding in a car behind the Schnepp vehicle, Schnepp was traveling about 50 to 55 m.p.h. As Schnepp's car went into the curve it slid down the banked portion of the curve into the lower, opposite lane of travel. It had apparently spun around so that its rear struck the front of plaintiff's car.

Plaintiff testified that, because of the condition of the curve, he slowed down to 25 or 30 m.p.h. He observed the

Schnepp vehicle begin to lose control. He related that he applied his brakes and pulled to the right shoulder to give the Schnepp vehicle room; that the latter skidded to the left and then spun into his car "head-on." The officer investigating the accident immediately afterwards found 99 feet of tire marks leading to the Schnepp car. He expressed the view that the marks were not the type of skid marks which would come from a vehicle braking to a sudden halt; and that both tires were smooth of tread -- the left had approximately one foot of canvas showing through the rubber.

Plaintiff urged that the accident was at least the joint responsibility of Schnepp and the Township. Plaintiff's theory of liability on the part of defendant-township was that Stage Coach Road, originally a Township Road, was improperly designed and constructed so as to be an efficient producing cause of the accident. Plaintiffs maintained that the defective condition constituted a nuisance for which the Township remained liable notwithstanding transfer of control to Cumberland County some five years before the accident. They also asserted liability on the part of the County on the theory of nuisance because it took over control of a defectively constructed road and failed to maintain it in a safe condition.

As we understand it, the asserted specific defect in the design and construction consisted in having too sharp a curve without adequate banking in view of the dip which existed in the highway at that point.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant County. It also granted summary judgment in favor of third-party defendants, Harleysville Mutual Insurance Company and Aetna Casualty and Surety Company. Defendant Township had instituted third-party actions seeking to hold the insurance companies responsible under insurance policies issued by them to the Township.

Defendant Township appealed as to all defendants. Defendant Schnepp appealed from that part of the judgment relieving the County of responsibility.

The township engineer testified that in 1958 the Township redesigned and reconstructed the road in accordance with plans prepared by himself and approved by the Township Committee and by the State Highway Department Engineer. The Township received 90% of the cost of the reconstruction from the State.

The township engineer related that when he redesigned the road he followed certain standards with respect to the design of the curve where the accident happened; that these criteria were contained in a "blue book,"; known as "A Policy on Geometric Design of Rural Highways," and that at the time of the accident there was a posted sign indicating the existence of the curve, but none indicating a change in the grade or that a decrease in speed was necessary. He stated that the highway had a macadam surface and that in order to reduce the severity of the dip in the curve all that was necessary was to put in additional fill when the road was ...


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