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Essex v. New Jersey Bell Telephone Co.

Decided: February 15, 1979.

HELEN ESSEX, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Fritz, Bischoff and Morgan.

Per Curiam

[166 NJSuper Page 125] Plaintiff Helen Essex appeals from the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant New Jersey Bell Telephone Company dismissing her complaint. She contends the trial judge erred because the question of defendant's negligence should have been left for jury resolution.

Plaintiff, employed by Merck Company as a legal secretary, was injured on February 7, 1975 when she fell over a telephone wire at the desk of Mrs. Meyers, a coworker. Plaintiff's fall occurred in an aisle formed by the desks of plaintiff and Mrs. Meyers. Sometime in December 1974 over 3,000 telephones were changed at the Merck Company from dial to the touchtone system. The changeover did not require changing any of the telephone wires that were in the floors or walls. However it did entail changing the mounting cord, i.e. , the cord which runs from the telephone to the box in the floor or wall. Merck advised the telephone company that it did not want the new telephones permanently affixed to the desks and mobile phones were installed. The one in question had a standard length mounting cord of approximately five feet six inches and, when the telephone was at certain locations on the desk, a portion of the cord lay on the floor.

Evidence disclosed that although adhesive ties or clips, used to adhere wires or cables to the surface or sides of desks, were available, they were not used in connection with the installation of the telephone at Mrs. Meyers' desk. Moreover, although safety panels through which cords could be passed were present on some of the desks, there was no such panel available on the desk of Mrs. Meyers.

As part of her response to defendant's motion for summary judgment, plaintiff presented the report of a physical engineer who concluded that it was foreseeable that someone would trip and fall over the cord as installed, and the cord from the telephone "should not have been in the aisle and should have been reasonably short so as to facilitate minor office movement but not so long that it contributed to the hazard of tripping." This expert pointed out that it was a safety "practice of engineers to have most everything anchored, tied or fastened down" and that

These practices have been highly developed and used by Bell Telephone as they have specially designed staple guns, connectors, clips,

adhesive mounts, aisle covers, wire clamps, anchors, junction boxes, quick disconnects and many other devices. They also route wires through partitions or over walls as appropriate to avoid the hazards of aisle obstructions.

The trial judge, in ruling on defendant's motion for summary judgment, held there was no duty on the telephone company to eliminate the tripping hazard caused by the wire and said:

They installed the phone. No specific request was made by the employer or subscriber to put clips on or what other means suggested by Mr. Galex. It was a proper installation and it was a mobile installation. And when it's mobile, it's very likely that the wire while it's being moved will become loose enough where somebody may trip over it. That's not the responsibility of the telephone company. Your motion is granted.

Defendant argues in support of the summary judgment that in the absence of some contractual arrangement with the subscriber there is no duty on the part of a telephone company to affix a telephone cord to a desk upon which a subscriber has placed a telephone or to take any other precautions to eliminate the tripping hazard presented by the cord falling to the floor.

Defendant's argument, if accepted, would in effect establish a zone within which it would be immune from liability for the foreseeable results ...


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