On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.
King, Deighan and Muir, Jr. The opinion of the court was delivered by Muir, Jr., J.A.D.
[214 NJSuper Page 341] After a jury verdict and the trial judge's rulings on motions for new trials on liability and damages, we granted leave to
appeal on the correctness of three rulings by the trial judge: (1) the denial of a motion for a new trial on liability; (2) the granting of a motion for a new trial on damages, and (3) the granting of a directed verdict in favor of the City of New Brunswick.
The action had its genesis in a brawl outside a New Brunswick tavern on the night of July 10, 1981. Plaintiff, a New Brunswick police officer, alleging injuries sustained in the brawl, sought compensatory damages from defendants Raymond Jorda and Mike Knight. Jorda, in several amended pleadings, filed counterclaims and third-party complaints. In those pleadings, he sought compensatory and punitive damages from plaintiff and from third-party defendant Zane Grey, and other individuals not directly involved in this appeal. Jorda asserted claims of negligence and intentional malicious conduct on the part of plaintiff and Grey. He also alleged violation of his civil rights under state and federal law. The third-party complaint named the City of New Brunswick as a defendant. That pleading made no specific allegations of liability against the city. During discovery, trial and this appeal, the theory of city accountability resolved into a claim of negligence in the policies and customs of city officials which placed plaintiff and Grey in a position to conduct their aggressive, wrongful behavior.
Plaintiff and Jorda also asserted claims against the tavern and its bartender for negligent serving of alcoholic beverages. See Rappaport v. Nichols, 31 N.J. 188 (1959); Anslinger v. Martinsville Inn, Inc., 121 N.J. Super. 525 (App.Div.1972). The jury found no cause for action on those claims. There is no appeal from those verdicts. The tavern and bartender have a tangential involvement in this appeal, however, as to the review of the denial of a new trial on liability.
After a five day trial, the trial judge granted a directed verdict in favor of the city, finding no viable claim under either the New Jersey Tort Claims Act or under the Civil Rights Act,
42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (West 1981). The jury returned a verdict in favor of Jorda against plaintiff and Grey. It found that plaintiff had committed an assault and battery on Jorda and had violated his civil rights. It awarded Jorda $90,000 in compensatory damages, $150,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 in damages for the civil rights violation. It found similar liability against Grey and awarded Jorda $100,000 in compensatory damages, $175,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 in damages for the civil rights violation.
The trial judge concluded the evidence did not support the total $565,000 award and set it aside. He based his determination as to the compensatory damages awarded on the absence of any permanent injury to Jorda. He found the failure of Jorda to prove the wealth of the wrongdoers as an element of his claim fatal to the punitive damage award. (Neither the court nor trial counsel raised this issue prior to or after the jury instructions.) Coterminus with the vacation of all damage verdicts, the trial judge denied a motion for new trial on liability.
The evening of the brawl, plaintiff and several friends came to the tavern after a softball game. Plaintiff wore a softball uniform. He also carried his service revolver pursuant to City Police Department policy. Jorda, Knight and some other college students met at the tavern for a social evening. None of the participants in the brawl showed any reasonably visible signs of intoxication. Only Jorda testified to an effect from his drinking and that related to his coordination in trying to flee the scene of the brawl.
When Jorda and Knight left the tavern, Jorda took a mug of beer. The bartender followed to retrieve the mug. Plaintiff, with some of his friends, followed, ostensibly to assist the bartender. What transpired thereafter is the subject of significant variation.
Jorda and Knight testified that plaintiff and his friends precipitated the brawl. Their version essentially indicated
plaintiff went after Jorda, so Knight, a football linebacker, acting to defend Jorda, punched plaintiff and two of his friends, knocking them to the ground. Plaintiff then pulled out his service revolver and badge. He identified himself as a police officer and fired at least one shot into the ground. Jorda's friends fled when the plaintiff fired his revolver. Jorda tried to flee, but plaintiff hit him and Jorda fell to the ground. While he was on the ground, several persons whom Jorda could not identify, kicked him.
Plaintiff's version of the incident identified Jorda and Knight as the aggressors. He claimed Jorda became aggressive when asked to return the beer mug and that Knight initiated the fight. He testified that upon being knocked down by Knight's punch, he stood up, identified himself as a police officer and fired a shot to "get control of the situation." He denied any knowledge of a police regulation prohibiting the firing of warning shots.
Other police officers, including Grey, came to the scene. They handcuffed Jorda and put him in the back seat of a patrol car. Jorda testified they then drove him around while Grey systematically beat him with a nightstick. Photographs were offered into evidence to show Jorda's physical condition after the brawl. Grey denied having the nightstick and denied hitting Jorda.
The emergency room report on Jorda's admission indicated he had two lacerations on the back of his head, which required stitches, and contusions of the nose and lower lip. Jorda testified that he also sustained a lump on his head the size of a grapefruit and soreness all over his body, and that he went to the doctor eight to ten times for a knotted muscle. No medical expert testified on the extent of Jorda's injuries.
The judge, in his charge to the jury, stated the jury could award Jorda damages for pain and suffering but not for any permanent injury. That charge drew no objection from Jorda's counsel.
Plaintiff contends the trial judge erred in denying his motion for a new trial on liability. He argues the exorbitant amount of the damage award is evidence that the verdict was the product of passion and prejudice of the jury which also tainted the liability verdict. He further contends that ...