On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket Nos. L-3133-06 and L-4572-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 4, 2010
Before Judges Rodríguez, Reisner and Chambers.
In this consolidated personal injury action, defendant Richard J. Cravello appeals from the judgments dated November 12, and November 14, 2008, entered in favor of plaintiffs Maria D. Ricca and John Casey. While defendant had conceded liability, the issues of compensatory damages and punitive damages were tried to a jury. We reverse because the proofs did not sustain a finding of punitive damages and because the inclusion of the punitive damage issue in the trial on compensatory damages prejudiced defendant.
The lawsuit arises out of a three-vehicle motor vehicle accident that took place just after midnight on the morning of July 24, 2004. Defendant, traveling westward in the right lane on Route 46, struck a vehicle traveling in the left lane. His vehicle then veered into plaintiffs' vehicle which was stopped at a red light on an intersecting street. Defendant's vehicle struck a lamppost causing it to hit plaintiffs' vehicle, and came to rest facing oncoming traffic. Casey testified that defendant was driving "at a high rate of speed" at the time of the accident, although defendant testified at his deposition that he was traveling thirty-five to forty miles per hour.
At the accident scene, defendant accepted responsibility for the happening of the accident, and liability was conceded in the litigation. Two police officers who responded to the accident scene testified that defendant appeared to be intoxicated, and the observation of both the officers and Casey taken together include such things as the smell of an alcoholic beverage on defendant's breath, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and swaying. Defendant admitted to the officer that he had two pints of beer that evening, although at another point he said that he had four beers and a glass of sangria that evening. One police officer also testified that defendant said that he did not go out drinking a lot.
Due to a head injury, defendant was immediately taken to the hospital. After his release from the hospital, defendant was transported to the police station where, two hours after the accident, he was given the breathalyzer test. The reading indicated that he had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.06% by weight of alcohol which is below the legal limit of 0.08%. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. One officer testified that defendant did not pass the field tests administered at the police station.
Ricca and Casey sued defendant for personal injuries sustained in the accident. Defendant conceded liability, and the court scheduled the case for trial on damages, including Ricca's claim for punitive damages.
At a Rule 104 hearing, the trial court determined that Ricca had sufficient proofs to present a claim for punitive damages to the jury. Those proofs consisted of testimony from witnesses that defendant appeared to be intoxicated at the time of the accident, that he had been speeding, and that he was passing on the right. The trial judge also found, as an aggravating condition, that the night was foggy. However, at trial, Casey testified that it was not foggy, and Ricca testified, when asked about the weather, that the roads were not wet and the night was "clear." She also said that traffic was "medium."
The trial was bifurcated in the following manner. In the first phase of the trial, the issues of compensatory damages and defendant's liability for punitive damages were presented to the jury. In the second phase, once the jury found liability for punitive damages, the jury was asked to fix the amount of punitive damages.
As a result, in the first phase of the trial, in addition to the usual proofs involving claims for personal injuries, plaintiffs presented proofs relevant to the question of punitive damages, including evidence of how the accident happened, the alleged speeding, and defendant's appearance of intoxication. The jury awarded Ricca a total of $555,160 in compensatory damages. Casey received a net award of $91,000*fn1 in compensatory damages. The jury also found that Ricca was entitled to punitive damages, answering in the affirmative to the following question:
Did the plaintiff Maria Ricca Casey prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant Richard Cravello was driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor, that his intoxication was a cause of the accident, and that one or more separate aggravating circumstances were present to establish that defendant's conduct was accompanied by ...