On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Morris County, Docket No. DC-9983-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 17, 2008
Before Judges Lihotz and Messano.
We are requested to review whether parents may be liable for a minor child's negligent operation of a dirt bike, unlawfully driven on a public roadway. Following a bench trial, a Special Civil Part judgment was entered on plaintiff's complaint seeking property damage caused to her Ford Mustang automobile. Plaintiff Nancy Ventres is the mother of plaintiff Michella Ventres, the Mustang's operator at the time of the accident. Defendants Thomas Renny and Denise D'Meo are the owners of a dirt bike operated by their minor son Justin Renny on a public street at 11:30 p.m.. Justin was driving the dirt bike, which had no lights or reflectors, without an operator's license.
Defendants purchased the dirt bike for Justin's use on dirt bike trails. The vehicle was not stored at defendants' home, but rather in the garage of Mike Korn, Justin's friend. Bike trails were located in a wooded area behind Korn's home. On the night of the incident, defendants allowed Justin to spend the night with a different friend. It is not clear whether this friend's home was proximate to the Korn's garage. Justin did not obtain express permission from his parents to operate the dirt bike on the night of the accident. However, Justin knew the bike's location and the access code to the Korn's garage, and apparently the ignition keys were kept with the dirt bike.
While operating the dirt bike on the street, Justin collided with plaintiff's Mustang. Both he and Michella suffered injuries. The police cited Justin for several motor vehicle violations, including careless driving, driving an unlicensed vehicle, and driving an uninsured motor vehicle.
The essence of plaintiff's complaint was defendants' negligence caused her loss. The costs to repair the automobile's damage, including the impound fee, totaled $3,986.83, and Michella's unpaid medical bills were $1,050.50. The trial court concluded defendants were not liable for the medical expenses. However, the judge found Justin's use of the dirt bike was "permissive," and ordered payment of $4,046.83 to compensate plaintiff for her property damage. Defendants appealed. For the reasons expressed in this opinion, we are constrained to remand this matter for further proceedings by the trial judge.
When reviewing judicial factfinding in a non-jury trial, our scope of review is limited. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). We determine whether the findings made are reasonably supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence present in the record. Ibid.; Fanarjian v. Moskowitz, 237 N.J. Super. 395, 406 (App. Div. 1989). A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference. Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
The trial court's finding that Justin's operation of the dirt bike was a "permissive" use, resulting in defendants' liability, was based on the parties' past practices of granting Justin "permission to use [the] motor vehicle [such that] any subsequent use, short of theft or the like while it [wa]s in the possession of the user though not within the contemplation of the parties, [wa]s a permissive use." This is an incorrect statement of the law as applicable to this matter.
The court applied what is known as the "initial-permission" rule articulated in Matits v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 33 N.J. 488, 496-97 (1960). In Matits, supra, the Court was asked to examine the scope of coverage available under an automotive liability policy issued by the defendant. Id. at 490. Specifically, the issue was whether the tortfeasor was operating the owner-insured's vehicle with permission. Id. at 490. The owner-insured's husband allowed a neighbor to borrow his wife's car to visit her mother. Id. at 491-92. A dispute arose as to whether a time limit was imposed on the permitted use. Ibid. Nevertheless, following the visit, the neighbor stopped to have a drink and caused an automobile collision as she was returning home. Id. at 492.
The trial court concluded the neighbor's use of the vehicle was covered by the liability policy because she was an additional insured under the standard omnibus clause extending insurance coverage to "any person or organization legally responsible for the use of the described automobile[,] provided the actual use was with the permission of the policyholder or such spouse." Id. at 490. The coverage clause of the policy complies with the requisites of New Jersey's insurance statute, which imposes an obligation on all owners of motor vehicles to maintain specified minimum motor vehicle liability insurance coverage. N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1(a).*fn1
This court affirmed and the Supreme Court held: if a person is given permission to use a motor vehicle in the first instance, any subsequent use short of theft or the like while it remains in his possession, though not within the contemplation of the parties, is a permissive use within the ...