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Jensen v. Schooley''s Mountain Inn Inc.

Decided: March 18, 1987.

TERESA JENSEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD JENSEN AND KEITH JENSEN AND KEVIN JENSEN BY THEIR GUARDIAN, TERESA JENSEN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
SCHOOLEY'S MOUNTAIN INN, INC., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County.

Michels, Skillman and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.

Michels

Plaintiffs Teresa Jensen, individually and as administratrix of the Estate of Donald Jensen (Jensen) and Keith Jensen and Kevin Jensen, by their Guardian, Teresa Jensen, appeal from a summary judgment of the Law Division entered in favor of defendant Schooley's Mountain Inn, Inc. (Schooley's) in this wrongful death/liquor liability action.

The record establishes that on November 5, 1983, at approximately 1:45 p.m., Jensen entered Schooley's which is located in Long Valley, New Jersey. Plaintiffs charge that defendant's employees negligently and wrongfully served alcoholic beverages to Jensen while he was visibly intoxicated. At approximately 11:30 p.m., while still drunk, Jensen left Schooley's and drove about eight miles to Binders River Court in Mansfield Township, New Jersey. He then parked his car and, for some unknown reason, began climbing a tree. The branches near the top of the tree apparently were not strong enough to support his weight and one broke, causing Jensen to fall approximately 20 feet to the river bank. He rolled or fell into the river and drowned. According to the police report, the injuries to Jensen indicated that he was unconscious at the time he entered the water. Plaintiffs allege that defendant's wrongful conduct proximately caused Jensen's "judgment, alertness, care, caution, coordination and visual and auditory acuity [to be] impaired" which in turn resulted in his fall and eventual drowning death.

Maintaining that, as a matter of law, it could not be liable under the facts as alleged by plaintiffs, defendant moved for summary judgment. As it was required to do on a motion for summary judgment, the trial court accepted the allegation that

defendant served Jensen alcoholic beverages when it knew or should have reasonably known that he was intoxicated. Nonetheless, the trial court concluded that Jensen's accident and death were not reasonably foreseeable and granted the motion. This appeal followed.

In light of the facts of this case, we are convinced that there should be no liability and therefore hold that the trial court properly granted summary judgment. The elements of a negligence action have been set forth by our Supreme Court in Caputzal v. The Lindsay Co., 48 N.J. 69, 74 (1966), as follows:

The two applicable concepts in the case of nonintentional conduct or failure to act are the very basic ones of duty, and the breach thereof, and proximate, or legal, cause of the injury complained of.

The existence of a duty to exercise care is determined by whether or not the risk or event to be guarded against is "reasonably within the range of apprehension of injury to another person." Hill v. Yaskin, 75 N.J. 139, 144 (1977); McCabe v. N.J. Turnpike Auth., 35 N.J. 26, 35 (1961); See also Restatement, Torts 2d, ยง 284. This hypothetical standard brings into play the matter of foreseeability in determining what the reasonable man should recognize as involving an unreasonable risk of harm. Caputzal, supra, 48 N.J. at 75. As Justice Hall so appropriately noted in Caputzal, "Foreseeability is not solely a mere matter of logic, since anything is foreseeable, but frequently involves questions of policy as well." Ibid. Stated differently, "whether a duty exists is ultimately a question of fairness. The inquiry involves a weighing of the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest in the proposed solution." Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538, 544 (1984) (Emphasis in the original) (citing Goldberg v. Housing Auth. of Newark, 38 N.J. 578, 583 (1962)).

Likewise, the concept of proximate causation is tied to policy considerations. As Justice Hall further observed in Caputzal:

Utilization of that term [proximate cause] to draw judicial lines beyond which liability will not be extended is fundamentally as ...


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