On Appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.
Michels, Kole and Ard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
Plaintiff Helen Butler appeals from a judgment of no cause of action entered by the Law Division in favor of defendant Acme Markets, Inc. (Acme) notwithstanding a jury verdict awarding her damages in the sum of $3,600 for personal injuries sustained as the result of a criminal attack which occurred in defendant's supermarket parking lot.
On the evening of November 11, 1977 plaintiff was shopping at defendant's supermarket, located at the corner of Pine Street
and Claremont Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey. After she had finished shopping she left the supermarket with her packages and walked towards her car, which was parked in defendant's lot. She placed her packages on the bumper of her car and proceeded to open the trunk of the car. Suddenly and without warning she was assaulted and her pocketbook stolen. During the course of the assault plaintiff was thrown to the ground and injured. Her assailant was apprehended shortly after the incident.
Plaintiff instituted this action against defendant to recover damages for the personal injuries she sustained as the result of the assault. She contended that defendant was negligent in failing to provide her with a reasonably safe place within which to shop. Specifically, she claimed that defendant (1) failed to warn her and other customers of the danger inherent in using the parking lot at night, in view of the recent prior criminal attacks in and around the supermarket, and (2) failed to provide adequate security to protect her and other customers from such attacks. The building occupied by defendant's supermarket was set back from the street and surrounded by a parking lot. The portion of the parking lot where the assault occurred was in front of the supermarket and was well lighted. The proofs show that over a period of a year there had been approximately seven attacks on defendant's premises. Five attacks were documented by the Montclair Police as having occurred in the parking lot during a four-month period immediately preceding the assault on plaintiff. Defendant, apparently as a result of the problem, had hired local off-duty police officers to act as security guards during the evening hours that the supermarket was open for business. These off-duty security guards were assigned to patrol the supermarket, including the parking lot. However, there was only one security guard employed and on duty at a time. The security guards were hired to prevent shoplifting, to protect its customers and to guard against other criminal activities, such as the passing of bad checks. One of the security guards testified, however, that their primary responsibility
was to prevent shoplifting and to protect the premises. On the night that plaintiff was assaulted, the security guard on duty was working inside the supermarket checking for shoplifters. There was no one on duty outside the supermarket or in the parking lot. In addition, there were no signs or warnings alerting plaintiff and other customers to the possibility of attacks.
At the conclusion of the proofs the trial judge reserved decision on defendant's motion for a judgment in its favor and submitted the case to the jury. The judge instructed the jury: (1) to determine whether or not defendant had used reasonable care to see that its business invitees had a reasonably safe place to transact their business, and (2) assuming that it did not, to determine whether defendant's failure to do so was a proximate cause of the injuries sustained by plaintiff. The jury found in plaintiff's favor and awarded her damages in the sum of $3,600. Thereafter, the trial judge set aside the verdict and granted a judgment of no cause for action in favor of defendant, notwithstanding the verdict. While the judge conceded that the "[f]ive previous assaults on the premises gave rise to an inference that some reasonable security measures would be indicated, . . .," it nonetheless concluded that plaintiff had failed to prove any appropriate standard as to the adequacy of protection which defendant should have provided. The trial judge concluded that "the jury verdict must have been based upon speculation rather than upon any defined standard, . . ." This appeal followed.
The standard for determining a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under R. 4:40-2 is the same as that governing the determination on a motion for involuntary dismissal under R. 4:37-2(b) or a motion for judgment under R. 4:40-1. The test is whether the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in favor of the party opposing the motion. If, accepting as true all the evidence which supports the position of the party defending against the motion and according him the benefit of all inferences which can reasonably and legitimately be deduced therefrom,
reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied. Dolson v. Anastasia , 55 N.J. 2, 5 (1969). Considering this matter in the light of the foregoing standard, we are satisfied that the trial judge erred in setting aside the verdict in favor of plaintiff and in ...