On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
Approved for Publication June 6, 1996.
Before Judges Baime, Villanueva and Kimmelman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baime
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Michael Giantonnio, a participant in a funeral procession organized and led by Gardner Funeral Home (Gardner), proceeded through a red light and collided with an automobile driven by Geraldine Taccard. Both Giantonnio and Taccard sued each other and Gardner. The actions were consolidated, and the issues of liability and damages were bifurcated. A jury found that Giantonnio was negligent and that his negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. The jury also found that Taccard was negligent, but that her negligence was not a proximate cause of the collision. Finally, the jury concluded that Gardner was free of fault. Giantonnio appeals. We affirm the judgment in favor of Gardner, but reverse and remand for a new trial regarding Taccard's liability.
On December 20, 1990, Giantonnio and his wife arrived at Gardner Funeral Home to attend the funeral of his wife's uncle. The couple lived in a different town, and neither of them was familiar with the area in which the funeral was to be held. Gardner had posted the name of the church at the funeral home and had published the same information in a local newspaper. It is undisputed that when Giantonnio left the funeral home he knew both the name of the church at which the funeral was to be conducted and the town in which the church was located.
Following the final viewing of the body, Giantonnio and his wife were directed to their car and told that if they wished to participate in the funeral procession they would receive further instructions in the parking lot. The two were told by a Gardner employee to keep their vehicle's headlights illuminated, follow the car in front of their automobile, and stay in line. The employee also placed a sticker marked "funeral" on the passenger side of the windshield. Giantonnio received no further instructions regarding what he should do if he became separated from the rest of the procession, no directions to the church, and no assurances that the front of the procession would pull to the side of the road and wait for the remainder of the cars if it were interrupted by traffic signals. In addition, Giantonnio was given no advice as to whether he should ignore traffic signals or obey them while travelling in the procession.
The procession then left the funeral home. All of Gardner's vehicles, namely the lead car, hearse, and flower car, were positioned at the front of the procession. The testimony as to the position of Giantonnio's vehicle was somewhat inconsistent, but it appears that he was located somewhere in the middle.
The procession turned southbound onto Chews Landing Road. As it approached the intersection with Laurel Road, described at trial as a "major" one, the front of the procession proceeded through a green light. Taccard, driving a 1981 Buick and facing westbound, was stopped at the red light on Laurel Road. She testified that she had initially approached the intersection with a green light, but that she had stopped out of deference to the funeral procession. In any event, the light changed before the entire procession had proceeded through the intersection. The driver of the automobile in the lane next to Taccard's proceeded into the intersection, but stopped when he noticed that the funeral procession was continuing. Taccard, who claimed she could see a quarter of a mile to her right up Chews Landing Road, determined that the intersection was clear and proceeded into it. The front of her vehicle collided with the rear driver's side quarterpanel of Giantonnio's truck.
Giantonnio had been following the cars in front of him. He was approximately two car lengths behind the automobile immediately ahead of him and was travelling at a speed of approximately twenty miles per hour. When he initially approached the intersection, Giantonnio noticed that the light was still green. He did not look up at the light again prior to entering the intersection, and he did not see Taccard's vehicle until the moment of impact. When asked why he entered the intersection without ascertaining the color of the controlling traffic signal, Giantonnio disclaimed any anxiety about being separated from the funeral cars and admitted that he was under the impression that he could ignore a red light because he was travelling in a funeral procession.
Gardner's president testified that the home normally did not give any directions to the church or cemetery unless requested, but customarily posted the name of the church and the town in which it was located and published this information in the local newspaper. The witness also testified that the instructions given to Giantonnio were the usual ones and that under no circumstances were Gardner employees to instruct funeral procession participants either to ignore or obey traffic signals. The witness noted that motorists often stopped to permit a funeral procession ...