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Rekiec v. Zuzio

Decided: January 20, 1975.

MARY REKIEC AND CHESTER REKIEC, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS AND CROSS-APPELLANTS,
v.
TONY ZUZIO, ANNA E. MURPHY AND OLD BRIDGE FIRST AID & RESCUE SQUAD, DEFENDANTS AND THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS, V. PTL. GREENLEE AND TOWNSHIP OF EAST BRUNSWICK, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF NEW JERSEY, THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS AND CROSS-RESPONDENTS. ARLENE COLYER AND ASA COYLER, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS AND CROSS-APPELLANTS, V. TONY ZUZIO, ANNA E. MURPHY, OLD BRIDGE FIRST AID & RESCUE SQUAD OF MADISON TOWNSHIP, INC., A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND PTL. GREENLEE AND TOWNSHIP OF EAST BRUNSWICK, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS. TONY ZUZIO, PLAINTIFF-CROSS APPELLANT, V. ANNA E. MURPHY, OLD BRIDGE FIRST AID & RESCUE SQUAD OF MADISON TOWNSHIP, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND TOWNSHIP OF EAST BRUNSWICK, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, AND PATROLMAN GERALD GREENLEE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Conford, Michels and Morgan. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morgan, J.A.D.

Morgan

[132 NJSuper Page 74] Defendant Township of East Brunswick appeals from judgments entered against it in connection with three consolidated personal injury actions arising out of an intersection collision between an ambulance on an emergency mission and two other automobiles. The accident

occurred on September 9, 1969 at the intersection of Highway 18 and Old Bridge Turnpike. Liability issues were tried first with the result that East Brunswick was held as the sole culpable defendant. After motions for a new trial and leave to appeal were denied, the damage aspects of the case were tried. The result of the first damage trial was set aside on the ground of excessiveness as to all five plaintiffs. The results of the second damage trial, with one exception, were substantially reduced by the court by way of remittitur.

East Brunswick is appealing not only the judgments as to liability but also the remitted results of the second damage trial, contending that the verdicts even as reduced are still excessive. All personal injury claimants have cross-appealed not only the trial court's order reducing their verdicts (and in the case of plaintiff Colyer from the order granting the new trial as to damages) but also as to those liability judgments exonerating all defendants other than East Brunswick.

An evaluation of the issues projected for resolution in this appeal requires an understanding of the scene of the accident, and the manner in which the accident occurred and the case was tried. Route 18 is a major north-south thoroughfare consisting of six lanes of travel, the three northbound lanes of which are separated from the three southbound lanes by a cement barrier. Its intersection with Old Bridge Turnpike, which runs in an east-west direction, is controlled by a set of traffic lights the only notable feature of which is that drivers on Old Bridge Turnpike headed west are given a five-second advantage over drivers heading east when the lights controlling that road turn green in their favor. In other words, the light controlling westbound traffic on the Turnpike turns green five seconds before it turns green for cars crossing Route 18 in the opposite direction. This arrangement is presumably to permit westbound drivers to complete left hand turns before eastbound traffic is permitted to move.

The three drivers directly involved in the collision itself were plaintiff-defendant Tony Zuzio, Herbert Stuhler (not a party to any of these actions), and Anna Murphy, the ambulance driver employed as such by defendant Old Bridge First Aid and Rescue Squad. Zuzio's vehicle, before the accident, was stopped for a red light facing in an easterly direction on Old Bridge Turnpike waiting for the light to turn green in his favor so that he could then cross Route 18. Stuhler's vehicle was on the opposite side of Route 18, also on Old Bridge Turnpike but facing in a westerly direction and waiting for the red light for which he was stopped to turn green in his favor. Anna Murphy's ambulance, before this accident was proceeding north on Route 18 on an emergency mission, with emergency signal equipment in full operation, convoyed by two patrol cars, one in front of her and one behind, both being operated by police officers of defendant East Brunswick. Officer Marrero was operating the lead car and Officer Greenlee was operating the escort vehicle following the ambulance. Greenlee was named as a party defendant. Marrero was not, although the car he was operating was referred to in some of the pleadings as having been negligently operated. The presence of these two police vehicles in the convoy was the occasion for joining East Brunswick as a defendant in these actions.

The personal injury claimants are Tony Zuzio, also a defendant at the suit of the other plaintiffs; Mary Rekiec, a passenger in the Zuzio vehicle, with her husband suing per quod, and Arlene Colyer, a passenger in the ambulance, with her husband, Asa Colyer, suing per quod.

There was little dispute as to the general sequence of events which led to the collision. The traffic lights controlling this intersection turned green for Zuzio and Stuhler and red for Route 18 traffic as Officer Marrero, operating the lead patrol car, approached this intersection. According to Marrero's best estimate, he was approximately 50 to 75 yards from the intersection when he observed the red light. There are varying estimates of somewhere between

35 m.p.h. and 50 m.p.h., as to Marrero's speed as he went through the intersection, but he and most of the other witnesses to this accident testify that he did so with dome lights flashing and sirens sounding. Zuzio testified he neither saw nor heard either the lead patrol car or the ambulance with which he collided. His passenger, Rekiec, saw the dome lights on Marrero's vehicle and admits to perhaps hearing the ambulance siren immediately before the collision. The clear weight of the evidence, however, confirms the fact that all emergency signal equipment was in full operation with respect to all three vehicles in the convoy.

As Marrero entered the intersection, he noted that all cross traffic on Old Bridge Turnpike was stopped and he passed through the intersection without incident approximately 75 to 100 yards before the ambulance. The ambulance followed Marrero through the red light and into the intersection where it collided with Zuzio's vehicle which had moved into the intersection when the light turned green in his favor. By his own admission, Zuzio looked neither to the left nor to the right before or as he was proceeding through the intersection. He testified that he was under the impression that the green light provided him with an absolute right of way and it appears that he was also under the impression that he was thereby absolved from the obligation of making any observations for other vehicles or conditions in the intersection. The force of the collision between the Zuzio car and the ambulance propelled both vehicles into the Stuhler vehicle which had been waiting at or slightly into the intersection for the convoy to pass through, notwithstanding the green light in his favor. Indeed, he testified that when the light turned green ...


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