On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
Before Judges Pressler, Conley and Wallace.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conley, J.A.D.
Plaintiff George Arvanitis (plaintiff) was injured while attempting to assist defendant Efstathia Hios (Efstathia) in convincing her husband, defendant George Hios (George), to take his medication. Plaintiff and his wife, Hristina Arvanitis, appeal summary judgments granted in favor of both defendants. We reverse.
Since the appeal arises from summary judgments, we must decide "`whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 533 (1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 214 (1986)). The evidence, of course, must be considered most favorably towards the opposing party. Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 523-24.
That evidence, as presented to the motion Judge, is not complex. In 1992, following a recurrence of a 1985 episode of hallucinations, George was diagnosed as a manic depressive. Lithium was prescribed to control his condition. During the earlier episode, George had become violent and had "grabbed [Efstathia] by the throat like [he] was choking her. . . ." A few weeks before the incident during which plaintiff was injured, George voluntarily stopped taking his medication. According to Efstathia's police statement following the incident, George "had been striking her lately." It is a reasonable inference that George's violence was a product of his not taking his medication.
There is no indication that plaintiff, who is George's nephew, was aware of the 1985 violent conduct or the then current violence on the part of George. He did know that George had stopped taking his medication and "was losing control somehow," and until the incident on May 20, 1993, he believed that George generally was "okay." On the day of the incident, Efstathia called plaintiff and asked him to come to her house because George was "a little bit upset" and would not take his medication. After receiving the phone call, plaintiff went first to George's deli shop. George was there and after they had coffee, he closed the shop. When plaintiff asked him how he was, George told him he was "not feeling that well" and that he did not know what was wrong or what was bothering him. Other than that, George seemed fine to plaintiff.
They both then went to the defendants' home, where Efstathia asked plaintiff to come in with George. He came in and they sat down in the living room. At that point, Efstathia and plaintiff attempted to persuade George to take his medication. George refused and became angry. He suddenly stood up to knock the medication out of his wife's hand and reached out to strike her. Plaintiff stood up to intercede. During the commotion, his leg broke through defendants' glass coffee table and was cut by the glass. During his deposition testimony, plaintiff could not articulate exactly how he cut his leg. He said:
"[George] wants to take the medication from his wife's hand, throw them up and then hit her . . . I got up and stopped him . . . I told him stop, don't do this type of nonsense . . . I found myself with my foot cut on top of the table . . . I must have lost my balance. The table was in front of me, and as I turn around was holding him, I lost my balance and I fell on the table."
And in his answers to interrogatories, he explained:
"Defendant would not take his medication and was becoming very agitated. Defendant became violent and stuck his wife. During the commotion, I slipped and fell into the glass table."
During oral argument on the summary judgment as to Efstathia, plaintiff argued that Efstathia "knew of her husband's propensity for violence when he wasn't on the medication," and not only did not warn him of that but invited him to come in and help her try to get George to take his medication. Those circumstances, he urged, created a duty of care on Efstathia's part which she breached by either not warning him or by requesting his help. The motion Judge, however, responded that plaintiff "doesn't even know how he got his foot cut," and then engaged in the following exchange:
[PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY]: No, I understand that, but that's why I don't think that you can grant summary ...