On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
Before Judges King, Muir, Jr., and Kestin.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Muir, Jr., J.A.D.
The principal issue on this appeal is whether the trial court properly charged the jury on proximate cause. We conclude the charge was improper. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.
The essential facts giving rise to the appeal began on July 13, 1993, when William Camp (plaintiff *fn1 ) left his 1989 Chevrolet at defendant's facility for a routine oil change. After servicing the car, defendant's employees had trouble closing the hood. After several attempts, the employees were able to close the hood. However, when plaintiff picked up the car, no one told him of the difficulty closing the hood. Plaintiff drove about five blocks when the hood suddenly flew open and broke the car's windshield. Plaintiff, contending he sustained bodily injuries as a result, filed a complaint seeking compensatory damages he alleged were proximately caused by defendant's employees' negligence. Plaintiff's wife also sought damages for loss of consortium.
In a liability-only trial, plaintiff contended defendant was negligent because its employees failed to properly shut the hood or because they should have notified or warned him about the problem experienced with shutting the hood but failed to do so. In light of plaintiff's contentions, the trial court instructed the jury on proximate cause.
The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to establish his claim by a preponderance of the evidence. . . . In this case, the plaintiff, Mr. Camp, has the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence all the facts necessary to prove that the defendant either didn't properly close the hood, or failed to notify him of problems with the hood so he could have taken the proper steps to deal with it.
I have indicated to you previously that the term accident in this case does not necessarily mean a multiple or even a one-car collision. The term accident, as used in these jury instructions, means incident. Thus, you are not required to find that an accident occurred, but that an incident occurred. The incident in question is the hood of the plaintiff's car striking the plaintiff's windshield. In this case, the plaintiff contends that the defendant was negligent in failing to properly shut or close the front hood of the car, and/or failing to advise the plaintiff of the problem in shutting or closing the hood of the vehicle so that he could take whatever actions . . . he would deem necessary.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard me use the term proximate cause. . . . In order for the plaintiff whose claims you are considering to recover damages, such damages must be proximately caused by the actions or the inactions of the defendant.
By proximate cause is meant that the action or the inaction of the defendant was the efficient cause, the one that naturally set the other causes in motion, and without which the damages claimed or the injuries claimed would not have resulted. The law requires that the damages chargeable to the defendant must be shown to be the natural and probable effects of the actions or the inactions of the defendant.
The jury returned a verdict against plaintiff by answering "No" to the verdict sheet question, "Was the Defendant, Jiffy Lube, negligent, which negligence was a proximate cause of the incident?" After the trial court denied a motion for a new trial, plaintiff and his wife appealed the ensuing judgment.
They contend the trial court's proximate cause charge was not only inappropriate given the fact issues for jury resolution but also because the court, in explaining proximate cause, told the jury it meant they had to determine whether defendant's action or inaction "was the efficient cause, the one that naturally set the other causes in motion, and without which the damages claimed or the injuries claimed would not have resulted." [Emphasis added.] We agree the court failed to tailor the proximate ...