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Thorn v. Travel Care

January 14, 1997

MARTINA THORN AND JAMES THORN, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
TRAVEL CARE, INC. AND/OR TRAVEL CARE PATIENT TRANSPORTATION SERVICE, LEONARD H. ADOFF, T/A TRAVEL CARE PATIENT TRANSPORTATION SERVICE, AND THERESA M. WEGRZYN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Before Judges Havey, Kestin and Eichen. The opinion of the court was delivered by Eichen, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eichen

The opinion of the court was delivered by

EICHEN, J.A.D.

In this personal injury action, defendants appeal from the trial court's denial of their motions for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiffs' case and judgment notwithstanding a jury verdict awarding aggregate damages in the amount of $472,875 to plaintiffs. Defendants contend that the testimony of plaintiffs' experts was insufficient to establish that defendants' negligent maintenance of a seat belt proximately caused plaintiff Martina Thorn's injuries. *fn1 Defendants argue that plaintiff's injuries would have been the same or worse even if she had been wearing a seat belt, and therefore she had the burden to demonstrate by expert testimony that an operable seat belt would have prevented those injuries. We disagree and affirm.

Plaintiff was injured while riding in defendants' invalid motor coach. She had hired the coach to transport her daughter, who is wheelchair-bound, to the dentist. While in transit, the coach stopped abruptly and caused plaintiff to be forcibly thrown from her bench-type seat across the aisle into her daughter's wheelchair. Although the coach was equipped with a seat belt, it was inoperable due to a missing buckle. When the coach stopped abruptly to avoid being "cut-off" by another vehicle, plaintiff experienced a rapid "acceleration and deceleration" movement of her body as she was thrown across the coach. As a result, plaintiff sustained a "traumatic brain injury," permanent in nature, as well as damage to her cervical and lumbar spine.

Plaintiffs instituted a personal injury action against defendants alleging negligent operation of the motor coach and negligent failure to properly maintain the seat belt. At trial, plaintiffs introduced four expert witnesses, all of whom concluded, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that plaintiff had suffered a permanent "closed head injury," as well as cervical and lumbar injuries, and that her injuries were caused by the accident. In regard to plaintiff's head injury, the experts testified that the acceleration and forceful deceleration of plaintiff's brain caused a collision between her brain and skull, resulting in a traumatic brain injury.

Dr. William Mullally, a Harvard University trained neurologist, who is board certified in neurology and internal medicine, testified on behalf of plaintiffs. He described the field of neurology as being concerned with the forces of acceleration and deceleration as they relate to the movement of the brain within the skull. Describing these forces, he stated:

In space and time, if the body is moving, the brain is moving at the same speed. If the body is stopped at any time, the brain will continue to move just like any other object. It may bounce against the skull. It goes forward and then backwards, and it also turns, rotates.

He gave as an example, "shaken baby syndrome," where continuous shaking of a baby "bounces the brain around," causing impact with the skull, sometimes producing such significant trauma to the brain that death occurs. Dr. Mullally concluded that plaintiff's chronic head pain and cognitive deficits were the result of the "closed head injury" she sustained in the accident. Neither he nor the other experts presented by plaintiffs specifically testified concerning what, if any, injuries plaintiff would have sustained had she been wearing her seat belt. Defendants did not present any medical experts or introduce evidence that plaintiff's injuries would have been the same or worse had a properly functioning seat belt been employed by plaintiff.

Defendants moved for a directed verdict at the close of plaintiffs' case, arguing that plaintiffs failed to sustain their burden of proof with respect to proximate cause on the negligent maintenance of the seat belt claim. The trial Judge denied defendants' motion, ruling that "the plaintiff is not required to prove that if [she] had used a good safety belt ... she would not have sustained ... injury."

At the Conclusion of the trial, the jury absolved defendants of liability on the claim of negligent operation of the motor coach, but determined that defendants were negligent in failing to properly maintain the seat belt, which negligence proximately caused plaintiff's injuries. After judgment was entered, defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, again arguing that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that plaintiff would not have been injured had she been wearing a seat belt. The trial court denied the motion, stating that the jury "could have reasonably concluded that defendants' negligence in failing to maintain the vehicle was clearly a proximate cause of the injuries sustained."

Defendants make the same argument on appeal. They maintain that the trial court erred in failing to grant their motions for judgment because plaintiffs were required to specifically prove through expert testimony that the absence of an operable seat belt proximately caused plaintiff's injuries.

Defendants maintain, as earlier noted, that had plaintiff been wearing a seat belt, the abrupt acceleration/deceleration forces experienced by her body when the motor coach stopped short would have been the same or greater and therefore would have produced the same or worse injuries than those she sustained. In other words, defendants contend that plaintiff would have experienced "the same whiplash type motion" whether or not she had been wearing a seat belt, and therefore their failure to maintain a proper safety restraint was not the cause of her injuries. Accordingly, defendants insist ...


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