On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Hudson County.
Long, Baime and Thomas. The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, J.A.D.
Defendants Kenneth L. Saeger and Grinnell Haulers, Inc. appeal from a final judgment entered upon a jury verdict which awarded plaintiff, Wayne Statham, $519,630.00 plus prejudgment interest of $82,058.87 on account of damages he suffered as a result of an automobile accident. (Statham was a passenger in a vehicle driven by respondent Jacqueline Bush when the vehicle was struck from behind by a truck driven by defendant Saeger and owned by defendant, Grinnell Haulers.)
The facts of the case are as follows: At the time of the accident, plaintiff was 30 years old, married and a high school graduate. He had earlier completed two years of college, but did not finish. He worked for several years unloading coffee sacks and as a maintenance man. In 1985, plaintiff was hired by the United States Postal Service as a mail handler. He was assigned to work at the bulk mail facility in Kearny, New Jersey, where he often carried 70 pound bags of mail. While employed at the post office, plaintiff had received a letter of warning and several suspension notices for repeated tardiness
and unexplained absences prior to the January 18, 1988 accident.
Plaintiff was at work at the postal facility on the morning of January 18, 1988 when he made arrangements to meet codefendant, Jacqueline Bush, for lunch. Bush drove over to the postal facility at approximately 1:00 p.m. in her 1979 Chevrolet Monza. This vehicle is a 2-door hatchback equipped with bucket seats and seat belts. Bush met plaintiff in the parking lot and then left for Bush's home in Irvington.
Bush was the operator and plaintiff occupied the front passenger's seat. Bush stated that she had buckled her seat belt but could not recall whether plaintiff had buckled his. Although plaintiff could not recall whether he buckled his seat belt, Dr. Stanley Siwek, plaintiff's original treating physician, testified that plaintiff had indicated to him that he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.
Bush testified that she turned onto an entrance ramp for Rt. 280 West after leaving the postal facility. The entrance ramp consisted of two lanes which proceed up an incline and then turned sharply to the left. Plaintiff recalled that after the Bush vehicle rounded the turn in the left lane, he and Bush glanced over to Rt. 280 East to see an accident which had occurred. He felt Bush's car wobble and skid and saw Bush ease off the gas. Plaintiff also testified that he then saw defendant's truck out of the corner of his eye and told Bush, "[t]his guy's gonna hit us." Thereafter, the impact occurred.
New Jersey State Trooper Christopher Miller was at the scene of the accident. He had been dispatched to the area to attend to an earlier accident in the east bound lanes of Rt. 280. Miller recalled that traffic in the west bound lanes of Rt. 280 started to back up due to rubbernecking by motorists and that he had to walk up a grass berm on occasion to move the west bound traffic along.
Miller testified that he was walking down the grass berm when he heard a "screech of brakes" and turned to see the
Bush vehicle heading West in the left lane of Rt. 280 at a speed which was a "lot less than the speed limit." Approximately two car lengths behind the Bush vehicle was the truck being driven by defendant. Defendant's truck hit Bush's car and both veered off the roadway down the grass berm. Plaintiff was ejected from Bush's car by the impact and landed on the berm approximately nine feet from where Bush's car came to rest.
Defendant stated that he was initially in the right lane on the entrance ramp to Rt. 280 West when he saw the traffic begin to back up in his lane. He then switched into the left lane and was travelling at about 25 miles per hour. As he rounded the curve, defendant saw the Bush vehicle about 20 feet ahead of him "going very slow." Saeger testified that he could not move to the right because of traffic and could not move to the left due to a railing. The left front wheel of Saeger's truck impacted with the right rear wheel of the Bush car and the vehicles then veered down the embankment.
Plaintiff was taken from the scene by ambulance and transported to University Hospital in Newark. He was transferred to West Hudson Hospital shortly thereafter, and came under the care of Dr. Siwek and Dr. Edmund Saad. Dr. Siwek noted that plaintiff had sustained a basal skull fracture, fractured ribs 9 and 10 on the right side, a fractured right humerus, a fracture-separation of the public symphysis, and an avulsion fracture of the transverse processes at L1 to L5 and a compression fracture at T3. In addition, plaintiff also sustained various hematomas. Dr. Saad, a Board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and treating orthopaedic specialist for plaintiff, testified that as a result of the injuries sustained in the accident, plaintiff suffered permanent partial disability. Furthermore, Dr. Saad opined that plaintiff could not do physical work which included bending and lifting more than 20 pounds.
Approximately six months after the accident, in July of 1988, plaintiff returned to work at the post ...