On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
Approved for Publication December 19, 1996.
Before Judges Michels, Kleiner and Coburn. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.j.a.d.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michels
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Plaintiff Irene Lindenmuth and her husband, plaintiff William Lindenmuth, appeal from an order of the Law Division that denied their motion for a new trial in this personal injury automobile action which resulted in a judgment in favor of defendant Robert Holden.
Plaintiff suffered personal injuries when an automobile in which she allegedly was riding as a passenger was struck in the rear while stopped at a traffic light by an automobile driven by defendant. Prior to trial, defendant stipulated as to liability in favor of plaintiffs and the matter was to proceed to trial on damages only. In preparation for trial, a videotaped deposition of plaintiffs' medical expert, Dr. Barry S. Gleimer, D.O., was taken on January 19, 1995. On cross-examination, Dr. Gleimer admitted that the only history that he had recorded regarding plaintiff's involvement in this accident was from plaintiff herself and from the reports of other physicians who had seen her previously. Defendant was attempting to show that plaintiff was not in the automobile at the time of the accident. Plaintiffs' counsel objected to this line of questioning, stating:
I am going to object. There will be a motion made in limine, pretrial, as to the issue of whether or not Mrs. Lindenmuth was in the vehicle. Liability has been stipulated in this case. The issue would have been litigated at the liability level as to whether she was in the car or not, because Mr. Holden could not be conceivably at fault for any injuries if she were not in the vehicle.
So, it's an issue that I'll be seeking to exclude any reference to pretrial whether she told the doctors that she was -- that someone alleged that she wasn't in the car or not . . . .
Plaintiffs filed a motion in limine in which they sought among other relief (1) a ruling on their objections during Dr. Gleimer's deposition; (2) the exclusion of any reference to the accident report, defendant's observations of the number of persons in the vehicle, and any other issue with regard to whether plaintiff was a passenger at the time of the accident; and alternatively, (3) bifurcating the trial of liability from damages. Plaintiffs' attorney's certification in support of the motion, in pertinent part stated:
The basis of liability has already been stipulated and defendants should be collaterally estopped from now re-litigating the issue of whether plaintiff was a passenger, as said issue was absolutely necessary to support a judgment for liability against [defendant] by [plaintiff].
Following argument, the trial court denied the motion and held that the issue of whether plaintiff was a passenger as well as damages would be decided at the same trial. In reaching this Conclusion, the trial court reasoned:
Negligence is the act or omission; liability is the causation of that act or admission. Clearly, there has been an admission of negligence but its just as clear to me that there has not been an admission of liability; that is, proximate causation.
Having said that, however, it is not my desire nor my intent to limit Mr. Kelley in his presentation of his case. And, in order to strike a balance, if you will, or do what I feel is procedurally appropriate, while we normally have a bifurcated trial . . . .
The one remaining issue with respect to liability is proximate causation. So that within my discretion, while it is our custom in Camden County to try cases in a bifurcated manner, that is pure liability in its truest sense in one action and ...