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Eaton v. Eaton

Decided: June 26, 1990.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 226 N.J. Super. 62.

For affirmance and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J.


[119 NJ Page 632] This appeal involves a wrongful-death action arising out of a one-car accident. Plaintiff, Gerald Eaton, husband of Sandra Eaton and the executor of her estate, instituted the action against Donna Eaton, his daughter. At issue are questions concerning the application of res ipsa loquitur, the evidentiary effect of a violation of the careless-driving statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, and the admissibility of a guilty plea to that violation. On a jury finding that Donna was not negligent, the Law Division entered a judgment for her. The Appellate Division

reversed and remanded. 226 N.J. Super. 62, 543 A.2d 485 (1988). We granted certification, 117 N.J. 626, 569 A.2d 1330 (1989), and now affirm.


The accident occurred around midnight on May 10, 1984, on Route 24, a two-lane highway also known as Mendham Road. Donna and Sandra were returning from Newark to their home in Long Valley. The weather was clear, and the road dry. At the point of the accident, Route 24 curves downward to the left. As the car approached the end of the curve, it left the road, struck a guardrail, flew about fifty feet in the air, collided with some trees, and landed on its roof. The damage was minimal on the driver's side, but heavy on the passenger's side.

When Morris Township Police Officer Scott Burns arrived, the car was overturned, the roof crushed, and Sandra was lying on the roof interior. Her head rested on the driver's side, and her feet were caught in the passenger footwell, which collapsed on impact. The impact smashed the passenger door shut, rendering it inoperable. A rescue squad extricated Sandra, and took her to Morristown Memorial Hospital. Donna's shoe was wedged under the brake pedal.

Donna, who was outside the car when Officer Burns arrived, sustained only minor injuries. She denied that she had been the driver, a denial she repeated to Burns later that morning at the hospital. She vividly recalled the accident, stating to Burns that her mother had swerved to avoid a head-on collision with a vehicle coming at them in their lane. Although the vehicle had not stopped, Donna recalled that it was a dark-colored Chevrolet Nova, with a small dent on the passenger side, and license plates that included the letters "L" and "N."

Sandra, however, told Burns that Donna had been the driver. When Burns interviewed them together, each stated that the other had been driving. Donna became angry, insisting that

Sandra had been driving, whereupon Sandra said that she did not remember who was driving.

Burns concluded that Donna had been the driver. The evidence supporting that conclusion included the facts that her shoe was wedged under the brake pedal, the minimal damage to the driver's side, the heavy damage to the passenger's side, the correlation of that damage to the injuries sustained by Sandra, the lack of injury to Donna, Sandra's position in the car, and her assertion that Donna had been driving. Consequently, on May 11, 1984, Burns issued to Donna a summons for careless driving in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.

Officer Burns disbelieved Donna's story about the "phantom vehicle." He found her detailed description inconsistent with the assertion that the other car had approached the Eaton's vehicle head-on and that the lighting conditions at the scene were poor. In addition to the tire marks left by the Eaton vehicle, the police found a second set of tire marks at the scene. Because the second set of tire marks was old and faded, the police rejected the possibility that those marks were attributable to the "phantom vehicle."

On June 21, 1984, without entering a court appearance, Donna pled guilty to careless driving and paid a $60 fine to the Morris Township Municipal Violations Bureau.

At trial, plaintiff's case on liability consisted of testimony by the police officers and evidence of Donna's guilty plea to the careless-driving charge. Donna, the only defense witness on liability, could not recall anything about the accident.

Thus, the posture of the proofs at the close of the trial was that the jury could accept one of two versions of the happening of the accident. The first was Donna's version that at the time of the accident her mother had been the driver, and that the accident had been caused by the "phantom vehicle." The second version, supported by the police investigation, Sandra's statement, and the physical evidence, was that Donna had been the driver, and that no other vehicle had been involved. Although

other explanations theoretically might have existed, none was advanced by the parties.

In its charge, the court explained that it would ask the jury to answer five questions. The first question required the jury to determine whether Donna had been the driver. If it so found, the jury was then to determine whether she had been negligent. The last three questions related to issues of proximate cause and damages, issues that the jury did not reach because it found Donna not to have been negligent.

When charging the jury on negligence, the court stated:

Negligence is defined as a failure to exercise in given circumstances that degree of care for the safety of others which a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.

Negligence may be the doing of an act which the reasonably prudent person would not have done or it may be the failure to do that which the reasonably prudent person would have done under the circumstances then existing.

Negligence is a departure from that standard of care. By a reasonably prudent person is meant not the most cautious person nor one who is unusually bold but rather a person of reasonable caution and prudence.

In the context of this particular case we know that we're dealing with the operation of a motor vehicle. And in that respect I charge you that when people drive motor vehicles on the roads of our state they have certain rights and assume certain obligations and responsibilities. They have the right to enjoy the streets and highways, but they must make proper and lawful use of this right. They must use it with reciprocal rights for others.

They must use their rights as to not negligently injure other persons that are lawfully on the highway or passengers in a motor vehicle. This simply means that the driver of an automobile is under the duty of exercising for the safety of others that degree of care, precaution and vigilance in the operation of the car which a reasonably prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances.

It has sometimes been defined as care commensurate with the risk of danger. Thus a driver of an automobile is required to use reasonable care in the control, management and operation of the automobile. The driver is required to make such observation and to exercise such judgment to avoid collision or injury to others. As a reasonably prudent person would have done in the circumstances.

Negligence then is the failure to adhere to that standard of conduct. In this particular case, in support of the charge of negligence on the part of Donna Eaton, the plaintiff asserts that Donna Eaton violated one of the provisions of the traffic laws of the State of New Jersey. And this provision is known as the statute prohibiting careless driving.

That particular statute [ N.J.S.A. 39:4-97] reads, "A person who drives a vehicle on a highway carelessly or without due ...

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