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Moraca v. Ford Motor Co.

Decided: February 6, 1975.

THOMAS MORACA, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, AND EVELYN MORACA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND MERLIN MOTOR COMPANY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT



For affirmance -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Jacobs, Sullivan, Pashman and Judge Conford. For reversal -- Justices Mountain and Clifford. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Sullivan, J. Pashman, J. (concurring in result only). Clifford, J. (dissenting). Mountain, J., joins in this dissenting opinion. Pashman, J., concurring in the result.

Sullivan

In this products liability case involving a Lincoln Continental which was six months old at the time of the one car accident, a judgment in favor of defendants based upon a jury verdict of no cause was reversed by the Appellate Division, one judge dissenting, on the ground that the trial court's charge to the jury was erroneous. A new trial on liability was ordered. See Moraca v. Ford Motor Co., 132 N.J. Super. 117 (1974). Because of the dissent, defendants appeal as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed in the majority opinion of the Appellate Division.

Plaintiff Thomas Moraca sustained serious injuries while driving his Lincoln Continental when it skidded off the road and ran into a tree. Plaintiff sued the Ford Motor Company and the Ford dealer from whom he had purchased the car claiming a manufacturer's defect in the car's steering system.*fn1

At trial plaintiff not only attempted to show a specific defect in the steering mechanism of the vehicle, but also requested the trial court to charge the jury that plaintiff

was entitled to a verdict if he produced evidence from which a jury might reasonably infer that the accident was caused by some defect in the car, whether identifiable or not, which existed prior to sale. In the same vein, plaintiff requested the further charge that liability may be established where the total effect of the circumstances shown from purchase to accident is adequate to raise an inference that the product was defective and that such condition was causally related to the mishap that occurred. The trial court denied both requests on the ground that they were included in the charge as given.

The matter was submitted to the jury on special interrogatories, the first of which asked whether the jury found "any defect" in the automobile operated by plaintiff Thomas Moraca making it unfit for its intended use which was a proximate cause of the accident. Question three asked whether the jury found that plaintiff Thomas Moraca was contributorily negligent.

After deliberating about two hours the jury returned with the following inquiry:

If the first question is answered "no" but we also answer question number 3 "no," can Ford circumstantially be held responsible and Mr. Moraca awarded damages?

Plaintiff's counsel immediately renewed his request that the jury be told that a manufacturer's defect can be established by circumstantial evidence and that no specific defect need be identified. The court again denied the requested charge and instead told the jury:

Now, if your answer to that [the first] question is "no" then Ford is not responsible for the accident and there can be no award against Ford; so if you have a situation where you answer question 1 that it is "no," that is, that there was no defect in the automobile, and your answer is also "no" to question number 3, that the plaintiff Mr. Moraca was not guilty of negligence * * *, you still would have no responsibility or no fault on the part of Ford and they cannot be held responsible.

Following further deliberation the jury returned a verdict of no cause for action in favor of both defendants by answering "no" to special interrogatories numbered one and three.

The majority opinion of the Appellate Division held that the evidence in the case warranted a charge that circumstantial proof of a defect is sufficient to support a verdict in favor of plaintiff and that the charge as given had not included this concept. We agree.

It is settled in this State that in a products liability case the injured plaintiff is not required to prove a specific manufacturer's defect. If the proofs permit an inference that the accident was caused by some defect, whether identifiable or not, a jury issue as to liability is presented. Sabloff v. Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., 59 N.J. 365 (1971). In Scanlon v. General Motors Corp., 65 N.J. 582 (1974), we recently restated the products liability rule as applied to a motor vehicle and said the following about circumstantial proof of a defect, at pp. 592-593:

In addition to the direct evidence device a plaintiff may establish the manufacturer's responsibility for a defect by means of "other evidence which would permit an inference that a dangerous condition existed prior to sale," Jakubowski v. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, supra, 42 N.J. [177] at 184. Basically, the age and prior usage of the product in relation to its expected life span, durability and effective operability without maintenance are the most important considerations in determining whether an inference is permissible that the defective condition existed prior to sale.

The real question in this case is whether plaintiff's proofs are sufficient to invoke application of the circumstantial evidence rule. This is essentially a factual determination. Plaintiff Thomas Moraca had purchased the automobile, a 1968 model, new, on November 27, 1967. In February 1968 the car was returned to the dealer for a 6,000 mile checkup. The accident happened on May 28, 1968, at which time the car had been driven about 11,000 miles. Moraca had to take a business ...


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