June 29, 2007
PHYLLIS ROBINSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
RALPH R. FORD, PATRICIA A. GARNETT, AND PATRICIA W. GARNETT,*FN1 DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, L-2013-03.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued April 25, 2007
Before Judges Lefelt and Sapp-Peterson.
Plaintiff appeals from the order entered denying her motion for a new trial following a jury verdict of no cause in favor of defendants Ralph R. Ford (Ford) and Patricia Garnett (Garnett). Plaintiff claims the jury verdict was a compromise and against the weight of the evidence. We disagree and affirm.
Here are the facts presented to the jury. The complaint arose out of an accident involving Garnett and Ford. Plaintiff was a front-seat passenger in the Garnett vehicle. The accident occurred in the parking lot of the Costa del Sol Restaurant located on Vauxhall Road in Union, New Jersey. The parking lot is located in the front of the restaurant. From Vauxhall Road, there is one entrance into the lot and also one exit from the lot.
At the time of the accident, all parties were at the restaurant to attend a wedding ceremony and reception. The parking lot was crowded, and after driving around without finding a spot, Garnett was directed to another area.
According to plaintiff, Garnett entered the intersection of the lane closest to Vauxhall Road intending to exit onto the highway. Garnett's vehicle was struck on the left front side by the Ford vehicle, which appeared to come straight towards them from the right, down the lane marked with an arrow going in the opposite direction.
Garnett's testimony was essentially consistent with plaintiff's version of the accident, except she testified that she was not moving or attempting to make a turn at the time of the impact. This testimony, however, was inconsistent with Garnett's earlier deposition testimony where she acknowledged that the impact occurred as she attempted to make a right turn at the intersection and then exit onto Vauxhall Road.
Ford testified that he too was proceeding through the parking lot in search of a parking spot. The parking lot lanes had two-way directional arrows. He traveled in the direction of the arrow for his lane, but because cars were parked both to his left and right, his vehicle was more to the middle rather than to the extreme right.
As he approached the intersection of his lane and the entranceway, he stopped to await the passing of a line of cars proceeding through the entrance from Vauxhall Road. When the road cleared, he looked both ways and then proceeded into the intersection where the impact occurred.
Following the accident, all the parties attended the wedding ceremony and reception that followed. Plaintiff and Garnett, however, did not remain at the reception very long because, according to plaintiff, they were "[shaken] up [and] plus it was like crowded, a lot of people."
After deliberating, the jury determined that plaintiff failed to prove that defendants were negligent. Despite the jury's verdict, plaintiff received $2,000 in settlement of her claim against Garnett, in accordance with an agreement reached prior to trial. Under the agreement, known as a High-Low, irrespective of the jury's verdict, plaintiff would receive at least $2,000, but no more than $2,500.
Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial. Relying upon Hoffman v. Smith, 6 N.J. Misc. 1090 (Sup. Ct. 1928), plaintiff argued that the fact that this was an intersection accident "where one car was coming one way and one car was going another way" bespeaks negligence on the part of one or both drivers.
The court denied the motion, reasoning,
I listened to the testimony and I was, let's say, less than confident that I had a real good understanding of what happened in this parking lot or who was going where and how this accident occurred or who caused it. I cannot . . . fault a jury or find that it shocks my conscience that they had difficulty determining which, if either, of the drivers was at fault or who caused the accident based on the testimony I heard.
[T]he testimony of both Defendants was not very clear as to how this accident happened.
The layout of the parking lot wasn't very clear to me. . . . [W]e had a -- some photographs of the parking lot but they really didn't show from a plan view or a layout that was really helpful. There was very little in the way of information as to how this accident occurred. And the burden [of] . . . proof is on the Plaintiff to prove negligence.
A trial court's ruling on a motion for a new trial will not be reversed on appeal unless it clearly appears that "there was a miscarriage of justice under the law." Carrino v. Novotny, 78 N.J. 355, 360 (1979) (quoting R. 2:10-1). A miscarriage of justice occurs from a "manifest lack of inherently credible evidence to support [the jury's] finding, obvious overlooking or underevaluation of crucial evidence, [or] a clearly unjust result[.]" Baxter v. Fairmont Food Co., 74 N.J. 588, 599 (1977). Evaluated under that standard, we discern no miscarriage of justice here.
Because negligence is never presumed, Long v. Landy, 35 N.J. 44, 54 (1961), plaintiff bore the burden to prove defendants' negligence. The evidence established that the parking lot was crowded with parked cars in every space, but that the manner in which the cars were parked reduced the size of the traveling lanes and presumably the vision of motorists, as both defendants as well as plaintiff testified that they did not see the other driver until just before impact. A jury could reasonably infer from this testimony that the accident was caused by traffic congestion rather than the failure to exercise due care and caution on the part of defendants in the operation of their motor vehicles. See Eaton v. Eaton, 119 N.J. 628, 639 (1990) (holding that where a defendant has an explanation for the accident, it is for the jury to determine the facts and the inferences to be drawn from all the circumstances).
The trial judge noted that the evidence was not clear as to how the accident occurred or as to the configuration of the parking lot. We cannot conclude that the trial judge was wrong in his decision to deny the motion for a new trial. Based upon this record, to do otherwise would intrude upon the rightful province of the jury. Carrino, supra, 78 N.J. at 366.