June 24, 2008
WILLIAM RUSSELL AND JACKIE RUSSELL, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-3633-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued May 21, 2008
Before Judges Simonelli and King.
Plaintiffs William Russell (William) and Jackie Russell sought damages against their insurance carrier, defendant USAA Casualty Insurance Company, under their uninsured motorist (UM) benefits for injuries William sustained as the result of a motor vehicle accident caused by a phantom driver.*fn1 Plaintiffs appeal from the order of August 3, 2007, granting defendant summary judgment and dismissing the complaint with prejudice. We affirm.
The facts are derived from evidence submitted by the parties in support of, and in opposition to, the summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995). On December 4, 2003, at approximately 6:30 p.m., William was driving between fifty to fifty-five miles per hour in the center lane of Route 78 eastbound in Irvington.*fn2 Traffic was moderate. There were three vehicles in front of William: one directly in front of him in his lane of traffic; one to the left of the vehicle in front of William; and one to the right of the vehicle in front of William. The vehicles were traveling at about the same speed as William, and he was approximately three to four car lengths behind them. A phantom vehicle "shot" across five lanes of travel (from the far right to the far left lane) in front of the vehicles in front of William, causing them to brake, which, in turn, caused him to brake. To avoid striking the vehicle in front of him, William turned his vehicle to the right and struck a curb. The phantom driver left the scene of the accident and was not identified.
Plaintiffs submitted a UM claim, which defendant denied. Defendant claimed that the phantom vehicle did not cause the accident, and that William caused the accident by failing to maintain a safe distance behind the vehicles in front of him and to stay in his lane of travel.
Defendant filed a summary judgment motion, relying on Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2 (1969), and Pavia v. Pfeiffer, 229 N.J. Super. 276 (App. Div. 1988). The motion judge granted the motion, finding under Dolson and Pavia that William alone caused the accident by either following too closely or driving too fast to avoid it.
We use the standard the trial court uses in deciding a summary judgment motion. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.) (citing Antheunisse v. Tiffany & Co., Inc., 229 N.J. Super. 399, 402 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 115 N.J. 59 (1989)), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). Summary judgment must be granted if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c); Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 528-29 (1995). "Genuine" means "only if, considering the burden of persuasion at trial, the evidence submitted by the parties on the motion, together with all legitimate inferences therefrom favoring the non-moving party, would require submission of the issue to the trier of fact." R. 4:46-2(c).
In determining whether there is a genuine issue of material fact for summary judgment purposes, the trial court must ascertain "what reasonable conclusions a rational jury can draw from the evidence." Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 535. To make the determination, the judge "'must accept as true all evidence which supports the position of the party defending against the motion and accord him [or her] the benefit of all legitimate inferences which can be deduced therefrom.'" Ibid. (quoting Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1 on R. 4:40-2 (2007)). If reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied. Ibid.
The "essence of the inquiry" is "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Id. at 536 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202, 214 (1986)). The trial court is required to consider "whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Id. at 540. "[W]hen the evidence 'is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law,' . . ., the trial court should not hesitate to grant summary judgment." Brill, supra, 17 N.J. at 540 (citation omitted). Applying these standards, we conclude the motion judge correctly granted summary judgment.
William was driving approximately fifty to fifty-five miles per hour in moderate traffic, and was approximately three to four car lengths behind the vehicles in front of him. When the phantom vehicle shot across the lanes of traffic, William applied his brakes, but could not stop in time to avoid striking the vehicle in front of his, so he turned his vehicle to the right. If he had not done so, he would have struck that vehicle because he failed to maintain a reasonably safe distance behind it. This is a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-89. Dolson, supra, 55 N.J. at 10; Pavia, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 281. A violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 is negligence as a matter of law warranting dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint. Pavia, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 281 (citing Dolson, supra, 55 N.J. at 10); see also Jones v. Bennett, 306 N.J. Super. 476, 484-85 (App. Div. 1998) (a directed verdict was properly entered against a defendant who violated N.J.S.A. 39:4-89).