On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-5772-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Baxter and King.
Plaintiffs, Patricia Reider and Douglas Reider, appeal from a jury verdict of no cause for action in a damages-only automobile negligence trial. Because the tortfeasor was uninsured, plaintiffs instituted suit against their automobile insurance carrier, defendant Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company (Allstate). On appeal, plaintiffs raise eight claims of error, seven of which involve the trial judge's decision to admit or bar evidence, and the eighth concerns the denial of plaintiff Douglas Reider's motion for a directed verdict. We affirm.
On October 10, 1999, plaintiffs, who are mother and son, were seated in Patricia's vehicle at an intersection waiting for the traffic light to turn green when a car came up behind them, crashed at a high rate of speed into the right rear portion of plaintiffs' vehicle, took off and crashed into a telephone pole. Patricia testified that she and her son were "too scared and nervous to go to the hospital" at the time, but two days later she and Douglas were evaluated by their family physician. Both complained of pain in their low back. Patricia produced evidence that she sustained lumbar sprain and strain, and a bulging disc at L5-S1. Although an orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery, Patricia was "afraid" and chose not to undergo the recommended surgery. According to Douglas's physician, he sustained a herniated lumbar disc.
On the day before jury selection commenced, Allstate moved in limine to bar plaintiffs from identifying defendant as Allstate Insurance Company, and to instead require them to refer to the actual tortfeasor, Matthew Thomas, as the defendant. In that same motion, Allstate also sought to bar plaintiffs from testifying that Thomas was operating a stolen vehicle and was being chased by police at the time of the collision. In support of its in limine motion, Allstate argued that because liability was stipulated, and Thomas's flight from police had no bearing on whether plaintiffs' injuries were permanent,*fn1 plaintiffs should be precluded from testifying that Thomas fled the scene or was driving a stolen vehicle.
In opposition, plaintiffs argued that if the motion were to be granted, their credibility while testifying would be adversely affected. Plaintiffs asserted that an order prohibiting them from discussing the hit-and-run nature of the accident would require them "not to tell the entire truth to the jury" and would cause them to "seem more nervous on the stand" in an effort to avoid running afoul of the in limine order. Relying on Taddei v. State Farm Indemnity Co., 401 N.J. Super. 449, 464 (App. Div. 2008); Bardis v. First Trenton Insurance Co., 397 N.J. Super. 138, 152 (App. Div. 2007), certif. granted, 194 N.J. 444 (2008); and Wenz v. Allstate Insurance Co., 316 N.J. Super. 570, 573-74 (App. Div. 1998), Judge Blue rejected plaintiffs' arguments. The judge reasoned that plaintiffs' credibility would not be affected because they would be permitted to explain how fast the other vehicle was traveling at the time of the accident; the force of the impact; the number of police who responded to the scene; and that plaintiffs never spoke with Thomas, the tortfeasor. The judge emphasized that her in limine order was limited to the fact of the police chase and that Thomas fled the scene after the collision with plaintiffs' vehicle.
We review a judge's decision to admit or bar evidence for an abuse of discretion. Lancos v. Silverman, 400 N.J. Super. 258, 275 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 196 N.J. 466 (2008). "A trial judge has broad discretion in making relevance and admissibility determinations under N.J.R.E. 401, 402, and 403, which we will not disturb, absent a manifest denial of justice." Ibid.
Here, we are satisfied that Judge Blue's decision to bar plaintiffs from describing the police chase or referring to Thomas's status as a hit-and-run driver was well within her discretion. Her reliance on Taddei, supra, Bardis, supra, and Wenz, supra, was correct. Moreover, any testimony by plaintiffs that Thomas stole the car and was fleeing from police would have been inadmissible hearsay in any event, because plaintiffs' knowledge on those subjects was derived solely from what police told them. As such, the testimony would have been inadmissible regardless of our decisions in Taddei, Bardis and Wenz, all of which held that the action should be maintained in the name of the uninsured tortfeasor, rather than the insurance carrier. The claims plaintiffs advance in Points I and II therefore lack merit. We thus affirm the judge's decision to designate Thomas, rather than Allstate, as defendant during the trial, and to bar reference to the hit-and-run nature of the accident.
In Point IV, plaintiffs argue that even if the trial judge's rulings on those issues had been correct, Allstate "opened the door" to admission of the previously-barred hit-andrun testimony when, during its opening statement, it argued that plaintiffs sought an attorney prior to receiving medical attention.*fn2 Plaintiffs argued before the trial judge that
Allstate's reference to plaintiffs consulting a lawyer before seeking medical treatment "opened the door" to the true reason they sought legal advice before medical care--because they were victims of a hit-and-run crash. Although Judge Blue concluded that Allstate had not opened the door, she nonetheless permitted plaintiffs to testify that they consulted a lawyer because of police involvement at the scene. We find no abuse of discretion in her determination that the in limine order should not be disturbed. Her ...