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Navarro v. Louder

September 28, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-2072-05.

Per curiam.


Argued September 1, 2009

Before Judges Messano and Alvarez.

On December 17, 2004, plaintiff Mario Alberto Navarro and defendant Rufina G. Louder were involved in a two-car motor vehicle accident in Hamilton Township on the northbound entrance ramp onto Route 29 from Interstate Route 295. At the conclusion of trial, the jury found defendant not negligent. The trial judge entered an order of judgment in favor of defendant, and subsequently denied plaintiff's motion for a new trial.

On appeal, plaintiff contends that the no cause verdict was "contrary to the weight of the evidence and . . . [and] a gross miscarriage of justice[.]" He also argues that the trial judge erred in admitting into evidence, over his objection, a diagram of the accident scene prepared by the New Jersey State Police. We have considered these arguments in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm.

We need not detail the medical evidence adduced at trial in light of the challenged verdict. It suffices to say that plaintiff was seriously injured when his car was struck by defendant's vehicle, overturned onto its side, and skidded more than one hundred feet with plaintiff's arm trapped between the car body and the road. Plaintiff was immediately removed from the scene, transported to the hospital, and subsequently interviewed by Trooper Stone Colleton either later that night or the next day. Plaintiff claimed that he was in the right lane of the two-lane access ramp leading from Route 295 onto Route 29. Defendant was in the left lane and slightly behind him. Plaintiff heard a squeal of brakes and saw defendant's car in his driver's side mirror. He thought her car was going to impact his, so he sped up, but was unsuccessful in avoiding the collision. Defendant's right passenger side struck plaintiff's car and spun it around, causing it to overturn. Plaintiff denied that he ever crossed from his lane into defendant's lane on the entrance ramp. At trial, plaintiff essentially repeated for the jury this version of how the accident occurred.

Defendant was relatively uninjured at the scene and spoke to Colleton, who was one of several troopers dispatched to the accident scene, along with Department of Transportation personnel and emergency medical responders. She did not testify at trial.

Colleton testified via videotaped deposition which was played for the jury by plaintiff. We have been supplied with a digital video disc of the deposition as seen by the jury. During Colleton's testimony, plaintiff's counsel asked him to identify a four-page police report, the first two pages of which were authored by Colleton and contained a narrative of his investigation and the versions of the accident given to him by the two drivers. Pages three and four of the report contained a diagram of the accident scene, prepared by another trooper, but acknowledged by Colleton to have been made with his "input." It is this diagram that is the focus of plaintiff's second point on appeal.

Plaintiff referred Colleton to the accident report and diagram during his testimony. The diagram frequently was the focus of the videographer's camera, and Colleton used a pointer to display the roadway and the positions of the vehicles post-accident. Colleton confirmed, in response to plaintiff's counsel's question, that the diagram was "consistent" with his observations upon arriving at the scene.

Colleton testified that defendant's statements about how the accident occurred were "scattered." He thought "[t]hey weren't plausible or able to really coincide with the observation of the accident scene." He testified that defendant "gave more than one rendition of what had happened."

Eventually, Colleton placed defendant in the rear of his trooper car which was equipped with a dashboard videotaping system. During Colleton's videotaped deposition, the videotape of defendant and her responses to Colleton's questions as she sat in the back of the trooper car were also played for the jury. Defendant was clearly distraught and broke down into tears several times as Colleton struggled to obtain her version of events. Ultimately, she alleged that plaintiff drifted over from the right lane of the access ramp into her lane, and that she attempted to veer left, but panicked because she feared oncoming traffic to her left. She steered the vehicle to her right, but overcompensated, striking plaintiff's van, and setting into motion the series of impacts and collisions that followed. Colleton testified that defendant's "final statement indicates basically in a nutshell what happened[.]" Still on direct examination, he referred to the diagram in detail, utilizing a pointer to show the jury how the events unfolded.

On cross-examination, defense counsel directed Colleton's attention to the diagram which was, once again, fully displayed on the screen for the jury's consideration. Colleton confirmed that the diagram "depicts . . . where the contact [between the vehicles] occurred." Referring specifically to the diagram, and demonstrating for the jury, Colleton confirmed that the initial point of impact between the two cars "took place to the left of [the right] lane."

At the conclusion of all the testimony, defendant sought to introduce the diagram, and plaintiff objected. He argued it was inadmissible because Colleton had not prepared it, was not present when it was "constructed," and "the extent of [Colleton's] involvement . . . [wa]s unclear." The judge overruled the objection, finding Colleton had "input into the preparation of that ...

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