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Campione v. Soden

July 9, 1997

FRANK A. CAMPIONE, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
LINDA J. SODEN AND MARCIA SACKNOWITZ, DEFENDANTS, AND ERIC M. JENSEN AND HANDEX OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS AND CROSS-RESPONDENTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Coleman join in Justice STEIN's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

(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).

Frank A. Campione v. Linda J. Soden, et als. (A-14/210-96)

Argued September 24, 1996 -- Decided July 9, 1997

STEIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal, the Court addresses the allocation of fault and damages under the Comparative Negligence Act for injuries caused by successive automobile accidents. In addition, the Court addresses the issue of whether a trial court that omitted one or more critical fact issues from the special verdict form submitted to jury, without objection by the parties, may make factfindings concerning such omitted issues on the basis that the parties' right to trial thereof has been waived.

On June 15, 1989, Frank Campione was a passenger in an automobile owned and operated by Linda Soden, which was stopped at a red light behind several other cars. Almost immediately after the light turned green, Soden's vehicle was hit from behind by a light-duty pickup truck, driven by Eric Jensen and owned by Jensen's employer, Handex of New Jersey. Jensen had maintained, over Soden's denial, that a car in front of Soden had stopped suddenly, causing Soden to brake abruptly.

Following the accident, Soden, Jensen, and Campione all exited the vehicles to inspect for damage. Campione was standing between the Jensen and Soden vehicles when Jensen's truck was rear-ended by a car owned and operated by Marcia Sacknowitz. The force of that impact propelled Jensen's truck into Soden's vehicle, crushing Campione's legs between the two bumpers and launching him several feet into the air. He landed on his back and head in the middle lane of the highway.

Campione, who sustained multiple injuries as a result of the impacts, filed suit against Soden, Jensen, Handex, and Sacknowitz. At trial, Campione's psychiatrist testified that Campione suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, secondary depression, and chronic pain and, further, that Campione's loss of income had contributed to his psychiatric difficulties. Although Campione had not attempted to value his labor relations firm or to assert a lost earnings or wage claim, he had testified that his once-busy firm had become practically "nonexistent" following the accident. In response to that testimony, Jensen/Handex sought to introduce Campione's tax returns to refute the inference that Campione's business had been a successful venture, which the trial court denied.

At trial, it was conceded that Campione's leg fractures were exclusively attributable to the second impact between Sacknowitz and Jensen/Handex. The source of his back, neck, periodontal, and psychological injuries, however, was vigorously contested. Jensen/Handex argued that all of those injuries were caused by the second impact, while Campione contended that the injuries could not be apportioned between the two accidents.

During the trial, the trial court informed counsel of its intention to require the jury to return a special verdict pursuant to R. 4:39-1, and submitted to counsel a draft of the special verdict form containing the proposed written questions to be answered by the jury. The draft was discussed by the court and counsel at a charge conference at the close of the trial during which the court agreed to address certain ambiguities in the draft special verdict form. The final version of the special verdict form prepared by the trial court was apparently submitted to counsel for review only after the court began charging the jury. The court interrupted its charge midway to hear exceptions to the charge. Both Campione and Jensen/Handex suggested changes to the jury interrogatories, after which the trial court gave clarifying instructions.

At the close of the evidence, the trial court found, as a matter of law, that Jensen/Handex was solely responsible for the first impact and dismissed the claims against Soden. At the Conclusion of the eleven-day trial, the jury found, among other things, that $300,000 in damages occurred exclusively as a result of the second impact and that $450,000 in damages could not be allocated as between the first and second impacts. The jury interrogatory specifically permitted the jury not to allocate damages between the two impacts.

After the jury was dismissed, counsel and the court noticed that the final verdict form had failed to inquire about the percentage of fault attributable to the negligence of Jensen/Handex as a proximate cause of the second impact. In addition, the form did not adequately inform the jury of its responsibility to attempt to allocate all damages between the two accidents. The trial court, therefore, requested briefs from the parties on how to mold the verdict to accommodate those omissions. As a result, the trial court made findings of fact in respect of the omitted issues, pursuant to R. 4:39-1. Specifically, the trial court found that the first impact, for which it had already determined Jensen/Handex to be 100% responsible, was the primary cause of the second impact. Accordingly, the court set aside the jury's findings with regard to the second impact and replaced them with its own, holding Jensen/Handex, Sacknowitz and Campione responsible for the second collision. The court also allocated 70% of the $450,000 in unallocated damages to Jensen/Handex and 30% to Sacknowitz. Finally, the Court imposed joint and several liability on both Jensen/Handex and Sacknowitz for all of plaintiff's damages.

Sacknowitz and Jensen/Handex unsuccessfully moved for a new trial or, alternatively, for a reduction in the damages. Jensen/Handex then appealed to the Appellate Division, which found that the trial court had improperly dismissed Soden from the suit as a matter of law. In addition, the Appellate Division held that the jury verdict was incomplete because the jury did not compare the negligence of all parties responsible for either the first or second impacts pursuant to the Comparative Negligence Act ("the Act"). The Appellate Division also determined that Jensen/Handex's failure to object to the verdict sheet pursuant to R. 4:39-1 did not constitute a waiver of the right to have a jury allocate liability because the trial court and counsel were both initially unaware of the omissions.

In respect of the trial court's molded verdict, the Appellate Division found the post-verdict allocation of liability to be "an invasion of the jury's province," and reversed those aspects of the molded judgment, leaving other jury findings intact. The Appellate Division also declined to set aside the jury's damage awards and directed that the $300,000 awarded for injuries attributable to the second impact be allocated according to the percentages to be decided by the jury on remand. In addition, the Appellate Division held each responsible defendant jointly and severally liable for the $450,000 in unallocated damages, citing a 1968 Appellate Division case. Finally, the Appellate Division dismissed as meritless Jensen/Handex's claim that the trial court erred in refusing to admit Campione's tax returns.

Jensen/Handex filed a petition for certification contesting the Appellate Division's imposition on it of joint and several liability for the unallocated damages and the exclusion from evidence of Campione's tax returns. Campione filed a cross-petition, asserting that Jensen/Handex's failure to object to the special verdict sheet constituted a waiver of the right to have the jury apportion fault for the second accident, and that the Appellate Division erred reversing the trial court's grant of judgment in favor of Soden.

The Supreme Court granted Jensen/Handex's petition for certification and Campione's cross-petition for certification.

HELD: The legislative objective of the Comparative Negligence Act requires juries to apportion damages between successive accidents and to apportion fault among the parties responsible for each accident; the waiver provision of Rule 4:39-1 should be enforced in view of the parties' failure to object to the omission of issues from the special verdict form.

1. The Legislature enacted the Comparative Negligence Act to ameliorate the harsh results attendant to the common-law doctrine of contributory negligence. (pp. 11-12)

2. A longstanding judicial response to cases where damages cannot be apportioned between two or more accidents has been to hold each culpable defendant jointly and severally liable for the unapportionable damages. (pp. 12-14)

3. A necessary precursor to an apportionment of damages under the Act is the submission of clear, accurate, and complete interrogatories to the jury, which requires participation by counsel. (pp. 14-15)

4. Rule 4:39-1, which enables trial courts to require juries to return special verdicts in the form of special written findings on each fact at issue in a case, mirrors Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 49(a). Thus, the history and subsequent interpretation of that rule is relevant to an understanding of R. 4:39-1. (pp. 15-20)

5. Under Federal Rule 49(a), if an issue is omitted without objection, the party is deemed to have waived its right to a jury trial on that issue and the trial Judge is authorized to make the necessary factual finding. (p. 20)

6. Federal courts have consistently enforced the waiver component of the special verdict rule. (pp. 21-22)

7. The trial court's imposition of joint and several liability on Sacknowitz for all of Campione's damages, and the Appellate Division's imposition on Sacknowitz of joint and several liability for only the unallocated damages cannot be reconciled with the Act. (pp.22-24)

8. Although the Act does not specifically address the jury's responsibility in cases involving injuries sustained in successive accidents, the legislative objective would be achieved by requiring juries to apportion damages between successive accidents and to apportion fault among the parties responsible for each accident. (pp. 24-25)

9. At the Conclusion of a trial where allocation of damages among multiple tortfeasors is an issue, the trial court is to determine, as a matter of law, whether the jury is capable of apportioning damages. (p. 25)

10. Parties waive their right to a jury trial concerning issues not raised by special verdict interrogatories unless they object to such omissions prior to submission to the jury. (pp. 26-28)

11. The factual findings rendered by the trial court pursuant to the special verdict rule were reasonable in light of the evidence presented during trial, and such findings of fact should not be disturbed unless they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of Justice. (pp. 28-30)

12. The trial court's entry of judgment in favor of Soden should not have been disturbed. (pp. 31-32)

13. A taxpayer is entitled to nondisclosure of his or her return absent a strong need for information contained in the return. Absent a claim for lost wages or profits, no strong need or substantial purpose for disclosure of Campione's returns existed. (pp. 32-34)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for the entry of a judgment that conforms to this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.

The opinion of the Court was ...


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