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Wakefern Food Corp. v. General Accident Group

Decided: January 28, 1983.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.

King and McElroy. The opinion of the court was delivered by McElroy, J.A.D.


[188 NJSuper Page 78] This appeal by defendant automobile insurance carrier again raises the issue of the nature, extent and purpose of the "use" and "loading and unloading" provisions of motor vehicle insurance policies. See Maryland Cas. Co. v. N.J. Mfrs., etc., Ins. Co., 48 N.J. Super. 314 (App.Div.1958), aff'd 28 N.J. 17 (1958); Drew Chem. Corp. v. American Fore Loyalty Group, 90 N.J. Super. 582

(App.Div.1966); Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co. v. Richards, 100 N.J. Super. 180 (Ch.Div.1968), aff'd 105 N.J. Super. 48 (App.Div.1969); Cenno v. West Virginia Paper & Pulp Co., 109 N.J. Super. 41 (App.Div.1970), certif. den. 56 N.J. 99 (1970); Bellafronte v. General Motors Corp., 151 N.J. Super. 377 (App.Div.1977), certif. den. 75 N.J. 533 (1977); Streeter v. Henry Heide Inc., 171 N.J. Super. 58 (App.Div.1979); Halifko v. Cities Service Oil Co., 510 F. Supp. 1131 (D.N.J.1981), aff'd 676 F.2d 685 (3 Cir.1982).

The process of law and its theories of rights and liabilities spring from and govern prosaic events, and this case presents no exception. Here a July 9, 1979 delivery of a trailer load of refrigerated orange juice to the unloading dock of Wakefern Food Corporation (Wakefern) at Elizabeth, New Jersey, by Harold Ruby, truck driver for Citrus Bowl Inc. (Citrus), was the instigating event giving rise to this recurring and vexatious insurance coverage issue. Unfortunately for Ruby, the delivery area where he was obliged to place and leave his trailer was maintained in less than good condition by Wakefern. Thus, while walking between his trailer and another Ruby was injured when he stumbled over items he described as "debris" where he reasonably was expected to perform his work.

Ruby was required to back his trailer into a place in the dock area where it could be left for eventual unloading by Wakefern. Because the trailer was refrigerated, Ruby was obligated to hook up an electrical cable, supplied by Wakefern, to a wall socket of the dock and run it back to an outlet on his trailer to provide current for its refrigerating unit.

Ruby's deposition revealed that he placed his trailer at the dock and found a cable in working condition; he indicated "most of them are broke." This one he plugged into Wakefern's wall socket and as he turned around to carry the other end to his trailer his foot caught in debris consisting of "a pallet, cardboard and excess wires." In answer to an interrogatory he indicated:

This pallet was partially broken where you could see it was just [hanging] together with nails. There were also many electrical cord hookups that go into refrigerated trailers laying on the ground and a piece of metal that looked like it

was squashed by a truck laying there. I don't remember whether it was the wooden pallet, electrical wires or piece of metal that caused me to trip and fall. These items were so positioned and intertwined or overlapped each other that I could not differentiate as to what caused me to trip.

The tractor trailer owned by Citrus and operated by Ruby was insured by appellant General Accident Fire & Life Insurance Corp, Ltd. (General Accident) under a "Business Auto Policy." When Ruby sued Wakefern for its negligent maintenance of the unloading area Wakefern claimed it was an additional insured and demanded defense and indemnity of General Accident. Upon refusal, Wakefern brought this suit for a declaratory judgment against General Accident.

General Accident filed an answer denying that its policy covered Wakefern and moved for summary judgment. The parties agreed that the facts were not in dispute and the trial judge treated the matter as one presenting cross-motions for summary judgment. After oral argument the judge held that General Accident was obliged to defend and insure Wakefern. The judge's brief opinion follows:

THE COURT: All right, I understand your argument but I do find your company is looking at their policy too technically. Policy is designed to cover someone who's loading or unloading and it's all part of the same loading or unloading process that this man was hurt. I can see if he got back in his truck, shut his motor off, went down to the end of the pier, smoked a cigarette, fell in the river, that's one thing but here he was doing what he was supposed to do; that's when he was hurt. that's covered. Submit an Order.

General Accident's policy is drawn in language intended to be easily understood and its format breaks down into sections intentionally labeled for reading and comprehension by an insured who lacks legal training. It defines "autos" as meaning "a land motor vehicle, trailer or semi-trailer designed for travel on public roads." Other ...

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