On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.
King and Dreier. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
James Opdyke has appealed in these two cases which on this court's motion have been consolidated for the purpose of this opinion. In his case as a plaintiff James Opdyke is joined by his parents in seeking affirmative relief for his injuries caused by a collision between the car he was driving (owned by his father) and a street sweeper operated by defendant King. In the companion case, his passenger, Sharon Colucci, made claims against the same defendants as well as against James and his father as the operator and owner of the vehicle in which she was riding. The Colucci matter was formerly consolidated with a third case involving the claim of another passenger, but a deconsolidation order was entered prior to trial.
These cases are unusual from a procedural standpoint. James Opdyke had retained the services of William J. Hill, Esq. to represent him on his affirmative claim, and his insurance company retained another law firm to defend him in the two actions brought by his passengers. The respective carriers for Opdyke and King negotiated a monetary settlement in the two passenger cases, leaving unresolved the issue of the apportionment of the settlement between the two drivers, which issue they agreed to try. Hill did not participate in this settlement discussion nor in the decision to proceed to trial on the unresolved issue of apportionment of liability. In fact, when he
heard about the trial, he appeared in the office of the Assignment Judge at 7:45 in the morning and made an application for a stay. The Assignment Judge, in chambers, informed Hill that he would not stay the trial, although there is no record of that in-chambers application.*fn1 Hill contended that he was informed by the attorney for the passenger Colucci that he was not prepared for trial on the date in question and that if forced to go to trial he would take a dismissal and reinstitute the action. It was only after leaving the judge's chambers on the day before the trial that Colucci's attorney and the two defense counsel agreed to settle the damage issues, whereupon the Colucci matter proceeded to trial on liability alone, to the surprise of Hill.
The Assignment Judge also asked Hill why he did not "take over and try the case." Hill responded that he was not so requested by the insurance company and did not request it himself because "[t]hey did not know me from Adam and they had hired a law firm . . . to represent the defense. . . . They know nothing about me, my background or experience. I thought it would be a total waste of time, your Honor, and I still think it would have been. There is no way they would have allowed me to try the case." Parenthetically, we note that a letter from Opdyke's carrier's attorneys in opposition to the summary judgment motion noted that had there been a request,
plaintiff's personal counsel would have been permitted to try the case.*fn2
The parties and all eye witnesses testified at the trial. From James Opdyke's own testimony it appeared that he had been operating his vehicle with the cruise control engaged at approximately 50 miles per hour. He came around a curve at approximately 35 miles per hour (the speed limit) when he saw a cloud of dust. He had no time to put on his brakes or sound his horn or do anything to avoid the accident. Since the accident, he was able to measure the distance from which one would have visibility of the driveway to the construction site which the sweeper was leaving and he agreed that it was approximately 250 feet. He also knew that there was heavy equipment at the site which exited the driveway at slow speeds, and therefore, was aware that he might have to slow down when he came around the curve. Apparently, the cloud of dust was caused by the failure of the co-defendants to utilize a sprinkler system to hold down the dust when the sweeper was in operation.
The issues before us are the application of res judicata or collateral estoppel and the jury instructions given in the Colucci trial.
Hill has noted in this appeal that he would have utilized depositions that had been taken of defendant King to show certain discrepancies in his testimony and that the motivation of the carrier's ...