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Didiego v. Cave

September 12, 2008

NORMA K. DIDIEGO AND JOSEPH M. DIDIEGO, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHRISTIAN R. CAVE AND DAWN M. ARMSTRONG, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge

OPINION

On May 28, 2008 through June 2, 2008, a jury trial was held in this case, which concerns injuries plaintiffs alleged to have sustained in an October 14, 2004 motor vehicle accident where defendant rear-ended plaintiffs' vehicle. At the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict assessing sixty-percent liability to defendant and forty-percent liability to plaintiff Joseph DiDiego. The jury awarded Norma DiDiego, who is the wife of Mr. DiDiego and was the passenger in their automobile, $10,000 for pain and suffering, but did not provide compensation for her past and future medical expenses or her past and future lost wages. The jury also did not find for Mr. DiDiego on his loss of consortium claim. Presently before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for a judgment on liability and new trial with regard to the damages awarded to Mrs. DiDiego. For the reasons expressed below and at oral argument held on August 7, 2008 and September 8, 2008, plaintiffs' motion will be denied.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs advance two main bases for judgment notwithstanding the jury's verdict and for a new trial. First, plaintiffs argue that the apportionment of liability was not supported by the evidence, and therefore this Court is required to direct 100% liability onto defendant. Second, plaintiffs argue that a new trial is warranted as to Mrs. DiDiego's past and future medical expenses and past and future lost wages because the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence.*fn1

Defendant opposes plaintiffs' motion, and seeks a final judgment in this case consistent with the jury's verdict.

1. Whether plaintiffs are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to defendant's liability

Plaintiffs argue that because defendant struck their automobile in the rear, defendant should be held to be 100% liable for plaintiffs' damages, and the jury's assessment of 40% of the liability on Mr. DiDiego was not supported by the evidence. Defendant counters that the jury's verdict was proper and supported by the evidence.

During trial, the jury heard two different versions of the events leading to the collision. Mr. DiDiego testified that he was stopped at red light in the center lane of Route 130 South in Cinnaminson, New Jersey when defendant struck his vehicle from behind.*fn2 Defendant testified that he was traveling approximately 40-45 mph when he came upon plaintiffs' vehicle moving only 25 mph and getting slower in a 50 mph zone. Defendant testified that the light was green, and that cars traveling at higher rates of speed were passing him in the outer two lanes and proceeding through the intersection. Defendant testified that upon seeing plaintiffs' brake lights, he determined he could not change lanes, so he applied his brakes in an attempt to stop. Defendant testified that his vehicle slowed to approximately 30 mph, but because of the wet road conditions, defendant slid into the rear of plaintiffs' automobile. After hearing this testimony, the jury found both defendant and Mr. DiDiego negligent, and apportioned 60% liability to defendant, and 40% liability to Mr. DiDiego.

To support their argument that the evidence does not support this finding, plaintiffs primarily rely on Dolson v. Anastasia, 258 A.2d 706 (N.J. 1969). In Dolson, the defendant had been following behind the plaintiff on a four lane highway approaching an intersection. The plaintiff testified that she desired to make a left turn at the intersection, so she came to a stop to allow the oncoming traffic to pass. She testified that she looked in her rearview mirror and did not see any car following her. A few seconds later, however, she was hit from behind by the defendant.

The defendant testified that he had been aware of plaintiff's car for several hundred feet, and that he observed her slowing down and her brake lights blinking on and off, but he did not notice whether she had her turn signal on. The defendant testified that he slowed down, but when he applied his brakes, he could not stop because he hit an oil slick, and he crashed into the back of the plaintiff's car.

A jury returned a verdict of no-cause, and the trial judge denied the plaintiff's motion for new trial as to liability. The Appellate Division affirmed. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The court noted,

It is elementary that a following car in the same lane of traffic is obligated to maintain a reasonably safe distance behind the car ahead, having due regard to the speed of the preceding vehicle and the traffic upon the condition of the highway. Failure to do so resulting in a collision [i]s negligence and a jury should be so instructed.

Dolson, 258 A.2d at 710 (citing N.J.S.A. 39:4-89, which provides, "The driver of a vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of the preceding vehicle and the traffic upon, and condition of, the highway") (other citation omitted).

The court held that "defendant's negligence was apparent by his own testimony," and there was not sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of the plaintiff "which proximately contributed to the collision." Id. at 711. The court also held that the trial judge's instruction to the jury that N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 ...


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