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Ponter v. Accardi

March 24, 2008

NANCY PONTER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
KAREN ACCARDI, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, Docket No. L-394-04.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 12, 2007

Before Judges Wefing and Parker.

In this auto accident case, plaintiff Nancy Ponter appeals from a judgment entered on January 31, 2007 dismissing her complaint after a jury rendered a verdict of no cause for action. We affirm.

On November 20, 2004, plaintiff was driving on Route 78 in slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic when defendant's car struck her from behind. Liability was admitted by defendant and the case was tried on damages only. The evidence indicated that there was virtually no damage to plaintiff's vehicle. Nevertheless, plaintiff claimed that she suffered a severe cervical spinal injury when her head jerked forward and then back into the headrest. The experts for both parties testified, however, that a rear-end hit would cause the head to be flung back and then forward. Plaintiff also testified that she had no prior neck injuries, but her medical records indicated that she had previously been diagnosed with and treated for arthritis of the cervical spine.

In this appeal, plaintiff argues that (1) the matter should be remanded for a new trial because the single jury interrogatory was improper; and (2) the matter should be remanded for a new trial because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

During the charge conference, the parties had an extensive discussion about the jury interrogatory and each submitted her own proposal. Defendant wanted two questions, one addressing proximate cause and the other, damages. Plaintiff wanted one question asking what amount of money would compensate plaintiff for her injury. After conferencing with counsel, the court drafted a single interrogatory incorporating both proximate cause and damages:

What amount of money, if any, will fairly and reasonably compensate plaintiff Nancy Ponter for the injuries proximately caused by the accident?

The trial court read the question to the jurors and then instructed them to "fill in the amount, whatever you determine to be fair, and then you'll indicate what your vote is, six zero or five to one."

Plaintiff now argues that "[b]y including the 'if any' language in the single damages interrogatory the question became confusing and misleading." We disagree. On its face, the interrogatory is clear and unambiguous. It asks simply, if the jury found plaintiff entitled to damages, how much would they award.

Plaintiff contends that the jury indicated its confusion when it sent a note stating:

Please re-read section covering those components to determine verdict. 1) pre-existing condition further aggravated by accident, 2) asymptomatic with all pain caused by accident? . . . . 3) no pre-existing condition, an accident caused all pain and suffering.

After some discussion with the attorneys, the court determined that the most appropriate response was to re-read the charges on burden of proof, preponderance of the evidence, proximate cause and aggravation. The jury then resumed its deliberations, and shortly thereafter, ...


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