On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County.
Approved for Publication January 25, 1996.
Before Judges Pressler, Keefe and Wefing.
Plaintiff appeals from the entry of a judgment in favor of defendant following a jury verdict of no cause for action. We reverse and remand the matter for a new trial.
Plaintiff alleged that he was injured in an automobile accident that occurred in the evening hours of February 8, 1992 on the ramp connecting Route 4 with 1-95 South. Plaintiff was returning from Columbia University, where he had played basketball with friends, to his home in Neshanic. The accident occurred at approximately 9:30 p.m. and it was snowing at the time. When plaintiff was at the top of the connecting ramp, he saw two moving vehicles in front of him. He commenced down the ramp at approximately ten miles per hour. He saw the first car apparently skid and then regain control. Plaintiff pumped his brakes. He then looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a 4-by-4 vehicle which was owned and driven by defendant. Seconds later, defendant's car struck him in the rear.
A state trooper, Michael Davis, responded to the scene and interviewed both parties. Trooper Davis did not issue tickets to either driver. Both parties were able to drive away from the accident scene. We do not set forth plaintiff's claims as to the injuries he received in this accident for they are irrelevant to the issues presented on this appeal.
Plaintiff's first argument is that the trial court erred when it refused to charge the jury in accordance with N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 which reads in relevant part:
The driver of a vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of the preceding vehicle and the traffic upon, and condition of, the highway.
Defendant does not deny that plaintiff requested such a charge from the trial court during a charge conference in chambers that was not transcribed. While such conferences in chambers often prove useful in formulating a charge, we note for the future guidance of the trial court that R. 1:8-7 calls for the trial court, prior to closing arguments, to place its rulings On the record on any requests to charge that have been submitted to it. Such a procedure obviates any ambiguity on whether a particular request to charge was submitted. As we noted, however, defendant does not deny that plaintiff requested the trial court to include such language within its charge.
Defendant contends that the trial court was correct in its determination and relies upon Mockler v. Russman, et al, 102 J. N.J. Super. 582 (App. Div. 1968), certif. denied, 53 N.J. 270 (1969) in support of its position. In Mockler, we affirmed a trial court's refusal to charge N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 and held there that the statute "pertains to a situation where both vehicles involved in an accident are in motion upon the highway." Id. at 590. Defendant here argues that plaintiff was stopped at the time of this accident since he skidded on the ramp and came to rest with his car partially obstructing the ramp. While defendant may have presented testimony to support such a factual Conclusion, the plaintiff's testimony was to the contrary. Plaintiff asserted at trial that he was proceeding down the ramp at the time of the accident and was not stationary from an earlier skid. We do not consider Mockler to be apposite.
As we noted in Paiva v. Pfeiffer, 229 N.J. Super. 276, 551 A.2d 201 (App. Div. 1988), this section of N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 simply codifies the common law and need not be explicitly mentioned to a jury. "All the jury need be told is that the driver of a vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of the preceding vehicle and the traffic upon, and condition of the highway and that a breach of that duty is negligence." Paiva, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 280.
Here, plaintiff advanced a substantial amount of evidence to support a jury finding that defendant had in fact been following plaintiff too closely in the same lane of traffic. All witnesses agreed it was snowing prior to and during the collision and that the roads were slippery. The ramp itself had a slight downward grade. Defendant said that he was traveling approximately fifteen miles an hour and was forty feet from plaintiff's car when he started to slow his vehicle. Trooper Davis testified that he had attributed the cause of the accident to defendant not allowing enough space between the two cars to stop safely. Whether following forty feet behind another vehicle, at a speed of fifteen miles per hour, on a snowy, slippery downward ramp at night constituted driving in a reasonably prudent manner presented a jury issue.
We are not persuaded by the trial court's apparent view that N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 was inapplicable because the collision occurred on a ramp, as opposed to the open highway. A motorist's obligation to maintain a reasonably safe distance between vehicles in the same lane of traffic invokes the same safety concerns whether the vehicles are on multi-lane highways or connecting ramps.
We are satisfied that plaintiff was clearly entitled to have this principle charged to the jury and that the trial court's failure to include that concept within its final instructions was "clearly capable of producing an unjust result," R. 2:10-2, ...