On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J.
At issue is the interpretation and the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 6:2-7, which imposes absolute liability on airplane owners for damage caused by their planes to persons and property on the ground. Although this Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute in Adler's Quality Bakery, Inc. v. Gaseteria, Inc., 32 N.J. 55 (1960), that case did not raise the specific issue presented here, whether an airplane owner is absolutely liable under the statute if the plane is used without the owner's permission. In this case, the owner contends that the plane was stolen and that the statute does not apply because the imposition of absolute liability on an owner of a stolen plane would violate the due process clauses of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution and of the New Jersey Constitution.
The trial court granted summary judgment on liability for plaintiffs, who suffered personal injuries and property damage from the crash of the plane. In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed. We granted the owner's motion for leave to appeal, 93 N.J. 254 (1983), and now affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.
Garden State Aviation, Inc. (Garden State), which is engaged in the business of training pilots to fly small aircraft, owned a Piper Aztec airplane. The airplane was stored in Garden State's facility at Monmouth County airport, owned by Wall Herald Corporation.
Early in the morning of June 4, 1980, William R. Fisher, a student of Garden State, took the airplane without permission from Garden State's facilities at the Monmouth County Airport. During the ensuing flight, Fisher crashed the plane into the residence of John and Edna Torchia, in Neptune, New Jersey. The crash destroyed the Torchias' house and damaged the adjacent home where their daughter, Karen Woolley, and her son,
Ryan Woolley, lived. Fisher, who was acquainted socially with Karen Woolley, was killed in the crash. The Torchias and the Woolleys instituted this action seeking to recover for property damage to the two homes, and the Woolleys also sought to recover for personal injuries.
We first examine the Legislature's intent in enacting the statute. Originally promulgated in 1929 as L. 1929, c. 311, § 5, N.J.S.A. 6:2-7 was virtually identical to the Model Uniform Aeronautics Act drafted by the Commission on Uniform State Laws in 1922.*fn1 The only difference is that the Commission refers to a pilot as an "aeronaut," while the statute uses the term "airman." See Bogert, Recent Developments in the Law of Aeronautics, 8 Cornell L.Q. 26, 33 (1922-23). Soon after the creation of the Uniform Act, twenty-three states adopted it. See Elliot, Liability of the Owner of an Aircraft Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 38 J. Air L. & Com. 547, 555 n. 39 (1972) (Elliot).
In 1943, however, the act was eliminated from the list of Uniform Laws. See Handbook of The ...