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Robinson v. Gonzalez

Decided: October 23, 1986.


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

Morton I. Greenberg, J. H. Coleman and Gruccio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morton I. Greenberg, P.J.A.D.


This matter is before this court on plaintiff's appeal from what she conceives is an inadequate verdict in this motor vehicle personal injury action. The circumstances giving rise to this appeal are as follows.

On March 31, 1982 plaintiff, while operating an automobile in Elizabeth, was involved in an accident with a vehicle operated by defendant Robert Gonzalez. Unquestionably plaintiff was injured in the accident and consequently she brought this action against defendant to recover damages for the personal injuries she suffered and a trial on both liability and damages ensued.*fn1

In addition to what may be regarded as conventional claims, plaintiff sought to prove that she was discharged from her employment because she missed work as a result of her injuries and thus lost wages beyond the time she was disabled. Inasmuch as defendant contended that these alleged losses were not compensable, the court conducted an Evid.R. 8 hearing to determine whether evidence of this post-disability claim would be admitted. At the outset of this hearing the judge indicated that he would accept the factual representations of plaintiff's attorney. The judge was then told that at the time of the accident plaintiff's employer had a policy to discharge any employee who for any reason, including illness, missed more than five days' work in a year unless the absences were for a job-related injury.*fn2 It was also represented that following the accident plaintiff continued to work but in May 1982 she could not do so and thus went to a physician. When because of her injuries she missed a second day of work that month she

exceeded her five-day allowance as she previously had missed work for reasons unrelated to the accident. She was then discharged. Plaintiff asserted that she could not find work for an extended period and when she did it was at lower wages than those paid at the job she lost. Plaintiff implied without expressly so stating that the length of her unemployment exceeded the period of any disability. Plaintiff sought $26,000 damages by reason of her unemployment.

The judge ruled that it was unforeseeable that as a result of a person missing two days from work she would lose her job, have difficulty in finding new employment and suffer such large damages. He reasoned that plaintiff was involved in a rather minor accident, had soft tissue back injuries and had incurred approximately $375 in medical bills. He stated that a defendant who caused that type of injury could and should reasonably foresee that the injured party would lose a minimum time from work but it was not reasonably foreseeable that as a result of two days' absence from work she would be discharged. Further, the judge considered that her prior absences from work and not the loss of the last two days were the substantial reason for the termination of her employment. Hence he would not allow proof of the claim for lost earnings attributable to her discharge.*fn3 Subsequently plaintiff obtained a verdict that defendant was negligent, the negligence was a proximate cause of her injuries and her damages were $7,000.*fn4 Plaintiff has appealed from the judgment entered on the verdict.

In People Exp. Airlines, Inc. v. Consolidated Rail., 100 N.J. 246 (1985)*fn5 the Supreme Court dealt with a claim by a plaintiff which allegedly suffered economic losses as a result of the defendants' culpable acts in allowing a dangerous chemical to escape from a railway tank car thus requiring evacuation of surrounding areas where the plaintiff's business was located thereby disrupting its operations. The court was principally concerned with the fact that the plaintiff, unlike plaintiff here, suffered no physical harm or property damage. But in the course of his opinion for the court Justice Handler made reference to claims for economic losses by persons who have suffered physical injury. He indicated: "It is well-accepted that a defendant who negligently injures a plaintiff or his property may be liable for all proximately caused harm, including economic losses." Id. at 251. He also pointed out:

The assertion of unbounded liability is not unique to cases involving negligently caused economic loss without physical harm. Even in negligence suits in which plaintiffs have sustained physical harm, the courts have recognized that a tortfeasor is not necessarily liable for all consequences of his conduct. While a lone act can cause a finite amount of physical harm, that harm may be great and very remote in its final consequences. A single overturned lantern may burn Chicago. Some limitation is required; that limitation is the rule that a tortfeasor is liable only for that harm that he proximately caused. Proximate or legal cause has traditionally functioned to limit liability for negligent conduct. Duty has also been narrowly defined to limit liability. [ Id. at 252-253]

Justice Handler also discussed proximate cause and pointed out that:

Liability depends not only on the breach of a standard of care but also on a proximate causal relationship between the breach of the duty of care and resultant losses. Proximate or legal causation is that combination of '"logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent"' that fixes a point in a chain of events, some ...

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