On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 276 N.J. Super. 142 (1994).
Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Stein, and Coleman join in the Per Curiam opinion. Justice Garibaldi has filed a separate Dissenting opinion.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
GLORIA YUN, etc., et al. v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, et al. (A-30-95)
(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's reversal of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in JUDGE BAIME'S partial Dissenting opinion below.)
Argued October 11, 1995 -- Decided January 18, 1996
On the late evening of November 27, 1988, sixty-five-year-old Hak Yun Chang (Chang) was a passenger in the 1987 Ford van owned and driven by his daughter Yo Cho Shim (Yo). They were travelling northbound on the local lanes of the Garden State Parkway when the plastic cover, spare tire and part of the support bracket that was screwed to the rear of the van fell off the van, rolled across both lanes of traffic, and came to rest against the guardrail separating the Parkway lanes. Yo safely stopped the van on the right berm of the highway. Chang exited the vehicle, ran across two lanes of the dark, rain-slicked roadway, and retrieved the bald spare tire and parts. He was struck by a vehicle operated by Precious Linderman as he tried to return to the van.
The van was manufactured by Ford Motor Company (Ford). It was then sent to Universal Motor Coach (Universal) where the van's chassis was converted and spare tire assembly installed before it was shipped to Castle Ford (Castle), the dealer. Yo purchased the van from Castle in its completed state. Miller Manufacturing Corporation (Miller) manufactured the spare tire assembly.
On October 27, 1988, one month prior to the accident, Kim's Mobile Service (Kim's) had serviced the van. Kim's notified Yo and Chang that the bracket holding the spare tire was damaged or "bent down," the result of a previous motor vehicle accident. Chang and Yo told Kim's not to repair the apparatus because they were waiting for parts and the determination of insurance coverage.
Gloria Yun, as administrator of Chang's estate, and Nam Yi Yun, Chang's widow (hereinafter referred collectively as Yun), brought suit against Ford, Castle, Universal, Kim's and Miller, claiming that the apparatus connecting the spare tire to the rear of the van was defective. Yun alleges that: Ford, and Castle as the dealer, negligently manufactured, distributed and warranted Yo's van and its parts; Universal negligently installed, assembled, manufactured and distributed the conversion kit to the defectively manufactured 1987 Ford van; Kim's improperly serviced the 1987 van and caused a hazardous condition to occur; and Miller manufactured the defective spare tire carrier. Also named in the complaint were Precious and Charles Linderman, the driver and owner, respectively, of the other automobile. The Linderman's are not parties to this appeal.
Ford, Castle, Universal, Kim and Miller moved for summary judgment, contending that Yun failed to demonstrate that defendants' negligence, if any, proximately caused Chang's injuries. The trial court granted the motions, finding that, as a matter of law, Chang's actions broke the causal chain. Yun appealed and a majority of the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the trial court. The panel found that Kim's did not breach any duty owed to Chang because Kim's alerted Chang and Yo to the problem and was told not to make any repairs. The majority reasoned that, pursuant to the Products Liability Act, Yun was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose and that the alleged defect proximately caused the injuries sustained by Chang. The panel noted that proximate cause need only be a cause which sets off a foreseeable sequence of consequences, unbroken by any superseding cause, and which is a substantial factor in producing the particular injury.
The majority determined that, even assuming Yun's allegations of alleged defect to be true, logic and fairness dictated that liability should not extend to injuries received as a result of Chang's senseless decision to cross the Parkway under such dangerous conditions. According to the majority, the alleged defect in the spare tire assembly did not injure Chang; his injury occurred after he decided to leave the vehicle and cross the Parkway in both directions. Chang's and Yo's joint decision, one month before the accident, not to repair the allegedly defective assembly, in conjunction with Chang's flagrant disregard for his personal safety and the law, constitute intervening, superseding causes that broke the chain of causation. The majority also held that, as a matter of law, it was not reasonably foreseeable to defendants that this chain of events would occur. Therefore, the alleged product defect was not a proximate cause of Chang's injuries.
Judge Baime Dissented in part, finding Yun's submissions relating to proximate cause were sufficient in respect of Castle, Miller and Universal to require the denial of summary judgment as to those defendants. Judge Baime was of the view that reasonable persons might differ in respect of whether Chang's death was proximately caused by the defective spare tire assembly. According to Judge Baime, a jury could find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the tire would dislodge and fall onto the roadway while the van was in operation and that the operator or passenger might sustain injuries in his or her attempt to retrieve the tire assembly. In addition, a jury could reasonably find that the harm that resulted was not proximately caused by the defective assembly and that fairness and logic demand that defendants be absolved from responsibility. Therefore, because he believed the issue to be reasonably debatable, he found ...