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NUNEZ v. SCHNEIDER NATIONAL CARRIERS

September 5, 2002

LORENA NUNEZ, ET AL., PLAINTIFF,
V.
SCHNEIDER NATIONAL CARRIERS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bassler, District Judge.

OPINION

Defendants trucking company and driver move, in limine, to introduce evidence of decedent's failure to wear a helmet while riding her bicycle when she was allegedly struck by Defendants' truck and fell to her death as proof of decedent's comparative negligence in order to reduce damages. Plaintiffs also move, in limine, to preclude any evidence of decedent's failure to wear a helmet. This Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 in that the parties are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted and Plaintiffs' motion is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

On August 19, 1997, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Julie Nunez ("Decedent") died in a tragic bicycle accident. Decedent had been riding her bicycle in a northerly direction along River Road in Edgewater, New Jersey, along with her friend, Irvin Sessoms, when she fell from her bicycle to her death. The autopsy revealed that the cause of death was injury to the head.

Around the same time, the defendant, Ronald Louis Jackson ("Jackson"), was driving an orange, 18 wheel, tractor-trailer combination in a northerly direction on River Road. His truck was stopped by police approximately one or two miles north of the scene of the accident shortly after 9:00 p.m.

Sessoms, who had been riding behind decedent at the time of accident, was the only eye-witness. According to Sessoms, an orange 18-wheel, tractor-trailer struck decedent on her left arm, causing her to fall from her bicycle to her death.

Plaintiff then brought this wrongful death action against Jackson and his employer, Schneider National Carriers, alleging that Jackson's negligent operation of the truck was the cause of decedent's death. Defendants dispute liability: Jackson denies ever seeing decedent on the road or being involved in any accident.

Nevertheless, Defendants contend that if a jury were to find them liable, the amount of damages should be reduced to the extent that decedent's own negligence contributed to her death.

B. Procedural Background

This action was removed to this Court from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Hudson County on September 24, 1999. Following the completion of discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment, which motion was denied by this Court. The matter was set to begin trial on Tuesday, July 16, 2002.

Defendants now move to introduce evidence that decedent's failure to wear a helmet contributed to her injuries and, therefore, any damages awarded to plaintiff should be reduced by decedent's comparative fault. Plaintiffs move separately to exclude any evidence of helmet nonuse for purposes of proving comparative negligence to reduce damages.

On Monday, July 15, 2002, the Court heard oral argument from the parties on these motions.

II. DISCUSSION

In diversity actions such as this, when deciding an issue of state law, the Court must determine which state's law to apply. This court looks to New Jersey's choice of law rules, Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941), which provides that the applicable law is that of the place with the most significant relationship to the parties and the transaction. Erny v. Estate of Merola, 171 N.J. 86, 792 A.2d 1208 (2002). Under this analysis, it is undisputed that New Jersey law controls. The decedent lived in New Jersey and this lawsuit arose out of an accident that occurred in Edgewater, New Jersey.

The Court, therefore, turns to New Jersey law regarding the admissibility of evidence of a decedent's failure to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle on a roadway where motorized vehicles travel for the purpose of reducing damages. Because no New Jersey state court has addressed the issue of the helmet defense, the Court must predict what the New Jersey Supreme Court would decide on this issue. Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 87 S.Ct. 1776, 18 L.Ed.2d 886 (1967); Gruber v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 899 F.2d 1366 (3d Cir. 1990).

Initially, the Court notes that evidence of failure to wear a helmet generally has no relevance on the issue of liability, since such failure rarely contributes to the cause of an accident.*fn1 See, e.g., Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (1991). Failure to use a helmet may, however, be a contributing cause to the injuries sustained and so may be relevant to the issue of damages. Id.

Many courts addressing the so-called "helmet defense" as an issue of first impression have drawn upon their state's application of the more commonly asserted and well established "seat belt defense." See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads, 253 Wis.2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (2002) (principles applicable to seat belt defense also govern helmet defense); Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (failure to wear helmet analogous to issue of failure to use seat belt); Warfel ...


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