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Johnson v. Salem Corp.

Decided: March 14, 1983.

ROBERT JOHNSON, JR., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
SALEM CORPORATION, ET ALS., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.

Michels, Pressler and Trautwein. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.

Pressler

This is a products liability case arising out of an industrial accident in which plaintiff Robert Johnson, Jr., sustained a serious injury of his right hand when it was caught in the rollers of the scrap baling machine he was operating. The jury returned a verdict of no cause for action and, following the judge's charge, also returned a damages verdict of $275,000. Having reserved on plaintiff's motion made at the close of the evidence for a judgment of liability, the judge thereupon entered judgment n.o.v. in plaintiff's favor on liability and accepted the jury's damage verdict. Defendant appeals.

The first of the questions raised by this appeal is the sustainability of the judgment n.o.v. In considering this issue we are aware that the standard for granting a judgment n.o.v. is relatively mechanical and does not involve the weighing of evidence. Thus, it may only be granted if, accepting as true all of the evidence supporting the position of the party resisting it and according that party the benefit of all legitimate inferences deducible therefrom, reasonable minds could not differ on the resolution of the issue. See, e.g., Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 5-6 (1969). See, also, Finnegan v. Havir Mfg. Corp., 60 N.J. 413, 421 (1972); Sabloff v. Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., 113 N.J. Super. 279, 281 (App.Div.1971), aff'd o.b. 59 N.J. 365 (1971); Bell v. Eastern Beef Co., 42 N.J. 126, 129 (1964). We are also aware

that where a question of credibility is involved, the fact that proofs are undisputed does not alone warrant the grant of a motion for judgment or a subsequent judgment n.o.v. since the trier of fact remains free to reject those proofs on credibility grounds. See Ferdinand v. Agricultural Ins. Co. of Watertown, N.Y., 22 N.J. 482 (1956). And we are, finally, also aware that R. 4:40-2(a) expressly authorizes the trial judge, after reservation on the motion for judgment, to order a new trial in the interests of justice in lieu of granting judgment n.o.v.

It is, therefore, the rare contested personal injury case in which either a motion for judgment or a subsequent judgment n.o.v. would be appropriate since in most negligence cases there customarily is, if we put aside questions as to the weight of evidence, sufficient factual dispute to justify the conclusion that reasonable minds might differ. It is also apparent that in such cases the propriety of the grant of a motion for judgment in plaintiff's favor would be an even rarer phenomenon than the grant of the motion in favor of defendant. Nevertheless, there may from time to time be a plaintiff's case which, in the context of the evidence as a whole, is so plainly unrefuted and in which questions of credibility are so clearly not implicated as to warrant the concededly extraordinary action of a judgment n.o.v. in plaintiff's favor. We are satisfied that this is just such a case and that there is accordingly no justifiable basis on which to impose upon the parties or the court system the burden and expense of a new liability trial.

The single liability issue here was that of product defect. Thus, following the principles of Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Machine Co., 81 N.J. 150, 168 (1979), the judge correctly charged the jury that plaintiff was entitled to a liability verdict if he proved that the scrap baling machine, as manufactured and designed by defendant, was not reasonably fit, suitable and safe for its intended purpose, that at the time of the accident plaintiff was using the product for its intended

purpose, and that the defect proximately caused the injury. Defendant agreed that the charge comported with Suter.*fn1

According to the undisputed facts, plaintiff was the operator of a scrap baling machine designed and manufactured by defendant in the mid-1950s. Its function was to convert long narrow strips of scrap aluminum into compacted bales. This process was initially performed by passing the strips between two rollers having a point of contact known as a "nip." Since there was an automatic feeding device, the only necessary contact which the operator had with the rollers or their immediate vicinity was when he initially "threaded" the strip into the machine or when he had to twist together the ends of different strips or broken strips. These procedures were obviously performed when the machine was not running. The machine itself, and hence the action of the rollers, was activated by one of the only two buttons with which the machine was equipped, a forward button and a reverse button. The machine was stopped by means of a stop bar. The design of the machine was such that the stop bar did not constitute a fail-safe stopping device. Thus, even after the stop bar had been employed to stop the machine, it was nevertheless subject to accidental start-up either by reason of a particularly located power surge or other electrical phenomenon, or an inadvertent pushing of an activating button or a malfunction of the stop bar itself.

The accident here occurred when plaintiff was obliged to twist two strip ends together. He had first pushed the stop bar to stop the machine and, as he was preparing the "feed," the machine accidentally started up, catching his hand between the rollers. The machine again stopped when he hit the stop bar with his head while trying to extricate his ...


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