On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-10676-98.
Before Judges Petrella, Lintner and Bilder.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
No other parties participated in this appeal.
This appeal presents the issue of whether a spouse has a duty to warn a potential victim of her husband's violent propensities when intoxicated, or to take some preventive action because of an alleged potential physical threat to the victim.
The plaintiffs sued Linda Metaxas and her husband's estate. The claims against Linda were on the theory that she failed to warn the victim, John A. Sacci (Sacci), that her husband, Gerasimos "Jerry" Metaxas (Jerry) was potentially dangerous and that by buying him beer she allowed his violent behavior to continue. The plaintiffs obtained a consent judgment against Jerry's estate for $3.5 million. The claim against Linda was dismissed on summary judgment on the ground that under New Jersey law Linda had no duty to warn the deceased. Plaintiffs appeal that dismissal of their complaint against Linda.
Linda, a teacher, met Jerry in January 1974. They were married on April 6, 1974, and had two children. Jerry's previous marriage ended in divorce, supposedly because his first wife had been having affairs. Linda never knew for certain what prompted the divorce, and commented that Jerry often had his "own version of things."
Jerry somehow conceived the idea that Linda was having an affair with one of her former co-workers. After believing for a year that Linda was committing adultery, when in fact she was not, Jerry waited outside Sacci's place of work on February 12, 1998, and shot and killed Sacci, who was then a teacher at a Hoboken high school. Jerry then killed himself. Sacci was survived by his wife and their four children who are plaintiffs in the present matter along with Sacci's estate.
The circumstances leading up to the shooting involved Jerry's mistaken belief that his wife was having an extramarital affair with Sacci. Throughout his marriage to Linda, Jerry was a heavy drinker. In discovery, Linda said she was aware of her husband's drinking problem. She generally purchased one or two cases of beer a week for her husband, kept his alcohol consumption to herself, and did not tell people outside of the home how much he drank. He most recently worked as a painter for the Schubert Organization, a theater company in New York. When he came home from work, he would usually begin drinking. Typically, he would drink six or more beers a night at home and became drunk three to four times a week. Jerry also drank on the weekends, and perhaps sometimes while at work. However, his drinking apparently did not cause any problems in his employment in New York.
In discovery Linda said that Jerry hit her four or five times. The first incident occurred before they were married. On other occasions, Jerry hit Linda over trivial disputes while he was drunk. Within the year before Sacci's murder, Jerry hit Linda with a hammer. Besides hitting Linda, Jerry shoved her many times. In addition to physical abuse, Jerry expressed anger by breaking things, including dishes, chairs and lamps. On one occasion Linda called the police to the scene, but no report or domestic violence complaint was ever filed.
In discovery, Linda claimed that these incidents were not serious. Generally, she did not report them to the police or tell anyone about them. She never filed a domestic violence complaint, although at one point Linda threatened to leave Jerry if he continued to hit her. Linda never sought professional assistance or medical treatment for any injuries sustained as a result of the abuse. Jerry apparently was never abusive towards the children.
Jerry had a confrontation with a co-worker in 1983, which resulted in both of them being fired. Jerry also once had a verbal argument with Linda's brother. Nothing in the record indicates that Jerry had a criminal record or was ever arrested.
Linda described her husband as an intelligent, complex man who could be belligerent and jealous, especially when he drank. During the year leading up to the incident with Sacci, Linda said that living with Jerry was very stressful and that he had a certain "meanness" to him. In her interview with the police after the shooting, Linda expressed her belief that Jerry was "chemically imbalanced." However, in her deposition, she did not remember saying this and said that she was not qualified to make such a determination.
Linda met Sacci in the early 1980s while then working as a teacher in the same school in Hoboken. Sacci and Linda were friendly, although their families did not socialize. Linda met Jerry's wife, Kathleen, at a Christmas party at work, though the Saccis never met Jerry and did not know what he looked like. The two families exchanged Christmas cards. In 1990, Sacci was transferred to the high school. Linda had not seen Sacci for approximately seven years prior to the shooting.
In February 1997, Jerry accused Linda of having an affair with Sacci. It is undisputed that Jerry's accusation was false and that Linda and Sacci never had a romantic relationship. Linda said that the accusation came "out of the clear blue," but ...