On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, HNT-L-361-99.
Before Judges Pressler, Ciancia and Axelrad.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciancia, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 22, 2002
The issue presented here is whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was available to plaintiffs on facts demonstrating that the vehicle they were in was struck by a wheel that had detached from a passing truck. The trial court in granting summary judgments in favor of defendants believed it was not. We disagree.
On September 3, 1998, Israel Barden was operating a tractor-trailer owned by J. Fede Trucking, Inc., and proceeding eastbound on Interstate 78 when a dual set of wheels on the left side of the tractor dislodged. One of the wheels crossed the median into oncoming traffic and struck plaintiffs' vehicle, which had been traveling westbound on the same roadway.
Four days before, Passaic County Tire, Inc., had replaced two of the tires on the tractor, including the one that struck plaintiffs' vehicle. The wheels had been removed to replace flat tires and then put back on the tractor using an impact wrench. Although the air compressor powering the wrench had a maximum capacity of 160 pounds, it was pumping "a little over 100, about 110" pounds of pressure at that time. There were no spacers between the wheels that became detached on the left side of the tractor, although spacers were present on the right-side wheels. There was evidence that spacers were often placed between wheels of differing metals. Here, one wheel that came off the truck was aluminum while the other was made of steel.
During the intervening days after the wheels were serviced, the truck had been driven for approximately twenty-four to twenty-five hours. At the time of the accident Barden was in transit, delivering a load of bricks from Maryland to New York. Prior to heading out onto the road that day, Barden stated that he made a pre-trip inspection of the truck, which included an examination of the wheels, tires and lug nuts.
Following the accident, only the wheel that had struck plaintiffs' vehicle was recovered. Examination of the wheel and that portion of the truck on which it had been mounted revealed that the threads on the studs were worn out and stripped, and the holes into which the studs passed were oblong instead of round.
Plaintiffs' complaint against defendants alleged negligent maintenance and operation of the truck. The allegations were detailed in discovery as indicated. The trial judge granted summary judgments to defendants *fn1 finding no proof of negligence and specifically noting the absence of expert testimony "regarding the causal link between the absence of spacers on the tires and the accident." Application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was rejected for two reasons. First, the trial court believed that plaintiffs' advancement of a negligence theory precluded application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Second, the trial court found that the truck was not under the exclusive control of any one defendant. In our view, the trial court's analysis of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine was overly restrictive.
It appears without serious controversy in this State and in other jurisdictions that wheels coming off moving vehicles are a classic occasion for application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. In Rapp v. Butler-Newark Bus Line, Inc., 103 N.J.L. 512 (Sup. Ct. 1927), a tire came off a moving bus and struck the plaintiff. A claim by defendant that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply was met with a statement by the court that defendant's position was "in entire disregard of the earlier decisions of our courts." Id. at 514-515. The court believed it a matter of common knowledge that such accidents do not occur when due care is exercised. Ibid.
In Gaglio v. Yellow Cab Co., 63 N.J. Super. 206 (App. Div. 1960), a mechanical defect caused a wheel of a taxi to tilt at a thirty to forty-five degree angle causing injury to the passenger. We rejected a claim that res ipsa loquitur was inapplicable, stating in part:
While accidents caused by the mere blowout of a tire are generally held to be outside the rule of res ipsa loquitur, see Annotation, 24 A. L .R. 161, 163 (1952), since reasonably prudent persons experience tire blowouts, courts have not hesitated to invoke the doctrine in cases of accidents resulting from defective or detached wheels. In Gates v. Crane Co., 107 Conn. 201, 139 A. 782 (Sup. Ct. Err. 1928), the doctrine was applied when plaintiff, a pedestrian, was struck by a wheel which suddenly became detached from an automobile and rolled on the sidewalk. In Fenstermacher v. Johnson, 138 Cal. App. 691, 32 P. 2d 1106 (Ct. App. 1934), res ipsa loquitur was applied to facts showing plaintiff, a passenger in defendant's automobile, was injured when the car overturned due to the buckling or collapsing of the wheel or the frame. See in our own State, Rapp v. Butler-Newark Bus Line, Inc., 103 N. J. L. 512 (Sup. Ct. 1927), and Mumma v. Easton & Amboy R. R. Co., 73 N. J. L. 653 (E. & A. 1905). [Id. at 210.]
Cases from around the country are collected in William A. Harrington, Annotation, Res Ipsa Loquitur as Applied to Accident Resulting From Wheel or Part Thereof Becoming Detached From Motor Vehicle, 79 A.L.R. 3d 346 (1977). The overwhelming ...