On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-2700-03.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves and Lihotz.
Plaintiff Melissa Henneberry filed this personal injury action against defendant Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company on April 16, 2003.*fn1 A four-day jury trial commenced on October 31, 2005. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and awarded her $333,158.74 for pain and suffering, past medical expenses, and lost wages. Pre-judgment interest of $16,438.85 was added by the trial court.
Defendant filed a motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, remittitur. Plaintiff cross-moved for addition of post-arbitration costs. On January 6, 2006, defendant's application was denied and plaintiff's application was granted. An amended judgment was entered on January 6, 2006, which included a post-arbitration award of $1,250, thereby adjusting the total award to plaintiff to $350,847.59. Defendant appeals from the entry of judgment after verdict, and the denial of its motion for new trial. We affirm.
These facts are taken from the trial record. Defendant owns the buildings and land composing the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, a hotel in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Defendant engaged New Castle Hotels to manage the day-to-day hotel operations. Plaintiff was employed as New Castle's hotel banquet captain.
On February 2, 2002, beginning at 3:30 pm, plaintiff was managing a party in the hotel's "Crystal Room." Adjacent to that room is an outdoor area referred to as the "staging area," where chairs and other supplies associated with banquet operations were stored. The staging area is surrounded by an exterior hotel wall on one side, and a six-foot wooden fence on the other three sides. One fence-wall contains a gate, with a latch that did not lock. The side of the fence containing the gate separated the staging area from the "HVAC area," which contained a metal grate covering the HVAC "pit." The grate-covered HVAC pit is one step from the gate's threshold. In both of these areas, the only artificial light is limited to the staging area. No signage exists stating that entry into the HVAC area was hazardous or prohibited.
On the date in question, Philip Colon, a banquet employee, entered the HVAC area for a cigarette break, around noon. When he first entered the HVAC area, Colon noticed that the grate covering the HVAC pit was open and he stepped over the open pit. Later that evening, at approximately 9:00 p.m., plaintiff saw Colon walk outside and through the staging area gate. She followed him, as his assistance was necessary for the ongoing event. Plaintiff opened the gate to enter the HVAC area, walked straight through, and fell directly into the HVAC pit, landing on her back.
Colon shouted into the pit to see who was there, as he could not see. Colon testified that the staging area was dark, explaining he had had to search for the cigarette he had hidden earlier that afternoon in the HVAC area. He then went to the manager's office to get help. Colon and the manager went to the basement engineering room, and used a door which accessed the HVAC pit. They helped plaintiff and summoned medical aid.
Plaintiff was ambulanced to Hackensack University Medical Center, where X-rays and CAT scans were taken. She was treated, given pain medication and admitted to the hospital for further treatment. Following her hospital discharge, plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Mitchell S. Garden, who made a preliminary diagnosis of lumbar and cervical strain. Dr. Garden sent plaintiff for MRI's, after which he diagnosed an acute compression fracture at the T12 vertebrae, and identified displaced fractures of the third and ninth ribs on the left side. Dr. Garden prescribed physical therapy, and also referred plaintiff to a pain-management provider, who gave her lidocaine injections. At trial, Dr. Garden testified that based upon reasonable medical certainty, plaintiff's sixteen-foot fall into the HVAC pit was the cause of her injuries.
Plaintiff's various medical expenses totaled $25,217.54. She was unable to work from February 2, 2002 until August 2002, during which time she would have earned approximately $420 to $430 per week. Additionally, her injuries prevented her from completing a final semester of student teaching at SUNY-New Paltz. For this reason, she did not, as planned, complete her degree by the end of the spring 2002 semester, and that in turn precluded her from taking a teaching position with the Children's Country Day School (CCDS), for which she had already contracted. Her salary at CCDS was to be $22,000 for the 2002-2003 academic year. Including her wages from working for New Castle on weekends, plaintiff calculated her income loss, as a result of her injuries, was approximately $29,784. During trial, plaintiff testified she continued to experience pain and is wholly or partially restricted from performing a number of everyday and recreational activities.
Defendant raises the following issues for review on appeal:
A NEW TRIAL AS TO ALL ISSUES MUST BE ORDERED AS THE JURY VERDICT REGARDING THE APPORTIONMENT OF LIABILITY BETWEEN PLAINTIFF AND DEFENDANT IS FLAWED AND A MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW[.]
A NEW TRIAL AS TO ALL ISSUES MUST BE ORDERED AS THE COURT ERRED IN DENYING THE MOTION OF DEFENDANT FOR INVOLUNTARY DISMISSAL ...