On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Hudson County.
Lynch, Bischoff and Kole. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kole, J.A.D.
Some five years after an arbitrator, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, had found that plaintiff had been discharged for just cause by his employer, the court below, after a hearing, determined that plaintiff had not been discharged for just cause by defendants Matlack, Inc. and Trans-Chem Express, Inc., and entered a judgment to the following effect: (1) plaintiff was ordered reinstated to his job; (2) he was to receive back pay, from the date Matlack first certified under oath in another proceeding (in which neither plaintiff nor his union was a party) that on February 14, 1972 he was not negligent in the operation of his vehicle, less compensation and disability benefits he had received during the period involved, and (3) the question of "back seniority" for plaintiff was "reserved." Defendants appeal.
Plaintiff is a truck driver. On February 14, 1972, while he was employed by defendant Trans-Chem, he was involved in an accident on one of the ramps of the New Jersey Turnpike. Prior to his employment with Trans-Chem plaintiff was employed by defendant Matlack, from 1968 to late 1970, when Matlack closed its terminal because of a labor dispute. Matlack reopened in 1971 but used Trans-Chem as its "fleet operator."
As a result of the February 1972 accident, plaintiff was discharged for cause -- reckless operation of the vehicle resulting in a serious accident, a "violation of company rule #4." He filed a grievance, which went to binding arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement between his
union and his employer. The issue at the arbitration hearing at the offices of the New Jersey State Board of Mediation was: "Was Peter Brown discharged for just cause? If not, what shall be the remedy?"
Sickles and Hess, of Matlack's safety department, Solewin, owner of Trans-Chem, and Goetchius, the Trans-Chem terminal manager, testified at the arbitration hearing. Plaintiff also testified. His testimony to the effect that he was not negligent or responsible for the accident was supported by that of an eyewitness, Stella Kahora. She apparently corroborated plaintiff's claim that his truck was unexpectedly forced into the Turnpike guard rail by a speeding car that cut him off. It is evident that the arbitrator credited the evidence of the witnesses testifying on behalf of Trans-Chem and Matlack.
The arbitration opinion and award, dated May 25, 1972, found that plaintiff was "grossly guilty of violation of company rule number four" and had been discharged for just cause.*fn1
In the opinion and award the arbitrator found that plaintiff was involved in an accident on February 14, 1972, while driving a company vehicle; that the accident caused an excessive amount of damage to the vehicle and to state and private property, and that plaintiff had been discharged by Trans-Chem*fn2 for violation of the company rule, by reason
of "reckless operation resulting in a serious accident." The arbitrator's conclusion that plaintiff was discharged for just ...