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Acri v. Hilton

October 23, 2009

NICOLE ACRI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RICHARD AND MARY HILTON, HUSBAND AND WIFE, STEVEN HILTON AND CHRIS HILTON, DEFENDANTS, AND JESSIE WHITE AND RICKY HILTON, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-4244-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 6, 2009

Before Judges Skillman and Simonelli.

On September 9, 2005, plaintiff suffered personal injuries when she fell off the back of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), commonly known as a "quad," being operated by defendant Steven Hilton. It is undisputed that the ATV had no passenger seat and that it was unsafe for plaintiff to ride on the back of the vehicle. It is also undisputed that plaintiff, who was then sixteen years old, was intoxicated at the time of the accident.

During the summer of 2005, plaintiff and her friends regularly drank beer in the garage of defendant Jessie White, became intoxicated, and then rode ATVs. On the day of the accident, they again engaged in this activity.

Plaintiff, along with her friend Caitlin Stadler, was driven to the garage by her boyfriend, Ricky Hilton. After they drank a substantial amount of beer, plaintiff became intoxicated, drove to an area where an ATV could be operated and then convinced Steven Hilton to allow her to ride on the back of his ATV. The accident occurred shortly thereafter.

Plaintiff brought this personal injury action against Steven and Ricky Hilton, their brother Chris Hilton, their parents Richard and Mary Hilton, and Jessie White. One count of the complaint alleged that defendants served alcohol to plaintiff, which resulted in her intoxication and contributed to the accident.

The parties conducted discovery, which included depositions of plaintiff, Steven and Ricky Hilton, Jessie White, and Caitlin Stadler. After the completion of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment.

The trial court ruled in an oral opinion that even though the evidence would support a finding that Ricky Hilton and Jessie White served plaintiff alcoholic beverages on the night of the accident and that plaintiff became intoxicated as a result, the evidence would not support a finding of a proximate causal relationship between her intoxication and the accident. Accordingly, the court granted defendants partial summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claims based on defendants' alleged negligent service of alcoholic beverages. This order preserved plaintiff's claims based on Steven Hilton's alleged negligence in permitting plaintiff to ride on his ATV and in his operation of the ATV. However, plaintiff's claims against Steven Hilton were subsequently settled and the complaint was dismissed as to him.

Plaintiff appeals from the summary judgment in favor of Ricky Hilton and Jessie White. She does not appeal from the summary judgments in favor of Mary, Richard and Chris Hilton.

Ordinarily, the determination whether there is a proximate causal relationship between a defendant's alleged negligence and an accident upon which a personal injury claim is based is a jury issue. Fluehr v. City of Cape May, 159 N.J. 532, 543 (1999). The issue may be removed from determination by the jury or other finder of fact only "in the highly extraordinary case in which reasonable minds could not differ on whether [proximate cause] has been established." Ibid.

This is not one of those extraordinary cases. Plaintiff's deposition testimony indicated that she regularly became intoxicated and only rode on the back of an ATV when she was intoxicated. This testimony included the following:

Q: Now when you say, "We would do this," are you saying that throughout the summer of 2005, you guys would drink alcohol, get intoxicated to various ...


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