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Zinck v. Whelan

Decided: August 23, 1972.


Conford, Matthews and Fritz. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, P.J.A.D.


[120 NJSuper Page 434] Plaintiffs appeal from grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Schoudt. Although the judgment is technically interlocutory and should therefore have been the subject of a motion for leave to appeal, we grant leave to appeal on our own motion nunc pro tunc

and reverse. We hold the case should have gone to trial on the factual issues of negligence, at least as to Patrick T. Schoudt ("Patrick"), and as to legal (proximate) cause.

On the basis of the pleadings and depositions, and the affidavit of defendant Whelan, together with legitimate inferences therefrom favorable to plaintiffs, a fact-finder could have found as follows.

On the evening of June 24, 1970 Patrick, son of defendant Kenneth J. Schoudt, and a licensed driver for three or four years, parked his father's automobile on the street in front of their home at 110 East Court Drive, Blackwood, unlocked and with the key in the ignition. The vehicle was inferably intended to be left there for the night. The area is apparently of a suburban, residential character, about three blocks from the business section of town and from a major highway. In the very early morning of June 25, 1970 defendant Whelan, then not quite 17 years of age, accompanied by three friends, saw the Schoudt car in the darkness on the street. The doors were unlocked. The boys entered the car and found the key in the ignition, whereupon they drove off, Whelan at the wheel. They parked and locked the car near Whelan's home. At about 1 P.M. on June 27 the boys, Whelan driving, were traveling south on U.S. Rt. 611 near Riegelsville, Pa. (about 50 miles from the scene of the theft of the car), when the vehicle crossed the center line into the northbound lane and collided head-on (according to the complaint) with a car traveling north in which plaintiffs were driver and passengers, respectively. All three were severely injured and their car extensively damaged.

By coincidence, plaintiffs Elinor Zinck and Mary Schoudt are, respectively, sister and mother of defendant Kenneth Schoudt.

In granting summary judgment for defendants the Law Division judge felt himself bound by the holding of this court in Saracco v. Lyttle , 11 N.J. Super. 254 (1951). In that case defendant parked his car on the street, leaving the

ignition key in it while visiting a friend. The car was then taken without permission by a son of the host, and several blocks distant it collided with plaintiff's vehicle. At the end of the trial the court directed a verdict in favor of defendant. In affirming, this court quoted the general rule "that a person who leaves an automobile in a public street unattended is under a duty to exercise such care in doing so as a person of ordinary prudence would exercise in the circumstances; and failure to exercise such care whereby the machine by force of gravity, or by some other cause reasonably to be anticipated or guarded against, gets under way and inflicts injury, renders such person liable therefor in an action for damages" (emphasis added), Barbanes v. Brown , 110 N.J.L. 6, 7 (Sup. Ct. 1932). The court then said:

No claim was made that Lyttle violated any provision of a statute or ordinance. See Note , 158 A.L.R. 1374.

Under the facts of the present case, it was not reasonably to be anticipated that an intermeddler would not only drive the car away but also would later negligently operate it. The leaving of the automobile unlocked afforded an opportunity for the unlawful taking by Padula, but this was merely a circumstance and not the proximate cause of the collision. Responsibility for an accident cannot attach to one unless his act or failure to act was the proximate cause of the injury. The proximate cause of the collision was the unskillful handling of the car by Padula. The negligence of the intermeddler, in driving into the vehicle of plaintiff, was an intervening efficient cause interrupting the chain of causation between defendant Lyttle's act in leaving his key in the ignition switch (whether or not such act in itself constitutes negligence) and the damage to the plaintiff. [ N.J. Super. at 257]

Cf. Reti v. Vaniska, Inc. , 14 N.J. Super. 94 (App. Div. 1951); Kinsley v. Von Atzingen , 20 N.J. Super. 378 (App. Div. 1952); Della Cerra v. Burns , 69 N.J. Super. 110, 121 (App. Div. 1961).

The principles stated in Saracco were then and still remain the view of a substantial majority of the jurisdictions in this country that have passed on the basic point, whether or not there was a statute or ordinance (frequently found) prohibiting the leaving of an unlocked car on a public way with key

in the ignition or with an open ignition switch. Most of them find as a matter of law no proximate cause; some, no duty of the driver to the injured plaintiff, and therefore no negligence. In some, both concepts coalesce to preclude liability. A fair sampling of the out-of-state decisions against recovery in this fact-pattern follows:*fn1

Galbraith v. Levin , 323 Mass. 255, 81 N.E. 2d 560 (Sup. Jud. Ct. 1948)(reg.); Richards v. Stanley , 43 Cal. 2d 60, 271 P. 2d 23 (Sup. Ct. 1954)(no reg.); Liney v. Chestnut Motors, Inc. , 421 Pa. 26, 218 A.2d 336 (Sup. Ct. 1966)(no reg.); Midkiff v. Watkins , 52 So. 2d 573 (La. Ct. App. 1951)(no reg.); Bennett v. Arctic Insulation , 253 F.2d 652, 17 Alaska 537 (9 Cir. 1958) (applying Alaska law, no reg.); Lingefelt v. Hanner , 125 So. 2d 325 (Fla. Ct. App. 1960)(reg.); Ross v. Nutt , 177 Ohio St. 113, 203 N.E. 2d 118 (Sup. Ct. 1964)(reg.); Liberto v. Holfeldt , 221 Md. 62, 155 A.2d 698 (Ct. App. 1959) (reg.), but see note below as to Khoyan v. Turner , 255 Md. 144, 257 A.2d 219 (Ct. App. 1969), apparently contra; Hersh v. Miller , 169 Neb. 517, 99 N.W. 2d 878 (Sup. Ct. 1959)(reg.); Bouldin v. Sategna , 71 N.M. 329, 378 P. 2d 370 (Sup. Ct. 1963)(reg.); Clements v. Tashjoin , 92 R.I. 308, 168 A.2d 472 (Sup. Ct. 1961)(reg.); see Meihost v. Meihost , 29 Wis. 2d 537, 139 N.W. 2d 116 (Sup. Ct. 1966) (dictum; key left in box in glove compartment) (reg.).

Prior to the adoption of a regulatory statute the New York Court of Appeals affirmed a short, conclusional opinion of the Appellate Division denying liability for absence of proximate cause. Wilson v. Harrington , 269 App. Div. 891, 56 N.Y.S. 2d 157 (1945), aff'd 295 N.Y. 667, 65 N.E. 2d 101 (1946). After adoption of a regulatory statute, however, the Appellate Division ruled the issues of negligence and proximate cause were for a jury, the statutory purpose having been

both to deter theft and to protect the life and property of others on the highway. Guaspari v. Gorsky , 36 App. Div. 2d 225, 319 N.Y.S. 2d 708 (1971), app. dism. 29 N.Y. 2d 892, 328 N.Y.S. 2d 679 (Ct. App. 1972).

In Sailor v. Ohlde , 71 Wash. 2d 646, 430 P. 2d 591 (Sup. Ct. 1967), where the truck stolen had been parked upon private warehouse premises, the court, although holding against liability, distinguished the case where the vehicle is left on a public street, saying "there is a significant difference" between the two situations (at 593).

Most of the cases denying liability are fairly conclusional in asserting that the theft of the car or the negligent operation by the thief, or both, are not foreseeable, thereby precluding postulates of negligence and proximate cause. Richards v. Stanley, supra , gives another reason for its holding against any duty to the injured person -- that the risk of negligent operation by a thief is "less than the risk [defendant] might intentionally have created without negligence by entrusting [his] car to another" (271 P. 2d, at 27); for example, to one under 25, where the statistics indicate higher than normal susceptibility to accidents. We think the analogy was not apt even in 1954, when Richards was decided, and that it is decidedly inappropriate today in view of the statistics set forth below concerning the very high incidence of accidents involving thief-driven vehicles. The judicial value-judgment involved is perhaps more candidly stated in Meihost v. Meihost, supra , where the court simply said (139 N.W. 2d, at 121): "Under most circumstances, allowance of recovery would place too unreasonable a burden upon the owners of motor vehicles."

The California no-duty rule of Richards v. Stanley, supra , was modified in Hergenrether v. East , 61 Cal. 2d 440, 39 Cal. Rptr. 4, 393 P. 2d 164 (Sup. Ct. 1964), where "special circumstances" were found to create a jury question in respect of both duty and proximate cause. The defendant parked a truck leaving a key in the ignition on a "skid-row"

type street from which an inebriate took the car and crashed into plaintiff's vehicle not long after. There, as distinguished from the situation in Richards v. Stanley , the court thought defendant had reason to expect a thief would be an incompetent driver.

A substantial and growing number of jurisdictions, though still a minority, have held, in the ordinary fact case of theft and accident within a reasonable time thereafter, that there are at least jury questions as to duty, negligence and proximate cause, particularly where there is a statute or ordinance prohibiting the leaving of the key in the ignition of an unattended car in a public place. Davis v. Thornton , 384 Mich. 138, 180 N.W. 2d 11 (Sup. Ct. 1970)(reg.), (in effect overruling the no-liability decision of Corinti v. Wittlopp , 355 Mich. 170, 93 N.W. 2d 906 (Sup. Ct. 1959)); Ney v. Yellow Cab Co. , 2 Ill. 2d 74, 117 N.E. 2d 74 (Sup. Ct. 1954)(reg.); Ross v. Hartman , 78 U.S. App. D.C. 217, 139 F.2d 14 (1943)(reg.); Myers v. Gaither , 232 A.2d 577 (D.C. Ct. App. 1967), aff'd sub nom. Gaither v. Myers , 131 U.S. App. D.C. 216, 404 F.2d 216 (1968) (reg); Justus v. Wood , 209 Tenn. 55, 348 S.W. 2d 332 (Sup. Ct. 1961), 2d reh. den. 349 S.W. 2d 793 (Sup. Ct. 1961)(reg.); Guaspari v. Gorsky, supra (reg.); Alberone v. King , 26 Conn. Super. 98, 213 A.2d 534 (Super. Ct. 1965)(no reg.); Mellish v. Cooney , 23 Conn. Sup. 350, 183 A.2d 753 (Cir. Ct. 1962)(no reg.); but see, contra, Consiglio v. Ahern , 5 Conn. Cir. 304, 251 A.2d 92 (Cir. Ct. A.D. 1968)(no reg.; decision by a court of lower rank than that of Alberone v. King, supra); Mezyk v. National Repossessions, Inc. , 241 Ore. 333, 405 P. 2d 840 (Sup. Ct. 1965)(no reg.) (an a ...

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