October 14, 2010
BILAL ALI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
UZEL W. JAMES AND FATHERS FISH COMPANY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND PAUL A. BLACKWOOD; CASSANDRA T. MURPHY; AND SAMUEL G. TREPP, II, DEFENDANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-8854-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 20, 2010
Before Judges Rodríguez and Grall.
Plaintiff Bilal Ali appeals from a summary judgment dismissing his personal injury claim against defendant Uzel W. James and Fathers Fish Company (Fathers). We affirm.
These are the salient and undisputed facts. Shortly before 6:00 a.m. on December 24, 2005, Paul A. Blackwood, driving a vehicle owned by Cassandra T. Murphy, exited the eastbound toll plaza at the George Washington Bridge, and drove into the left lane of the upper level. The road that morning was well-lit and there was "very good visibility."
Halfway across the bridge, Blackwood and Ali, his passenger, noticed a man, later identified as James, walking westbound clutching the center median of the bridge. Blackwood noticed a stationary van obstructing the left lane in which he was driving. He immediately slowed his vehicle and visually scanned the traffic to his right to change lanes to avoid the parked van. The van was owned by Fathers. Its driver was James. Although the van was clearly visible to Blackwood at a distance of approximately ten car lengths, it did not have any lights activated.
James told the police officer he had been involved in an accident with an unidentified vehicle, which left the scene. This accident rendered the van immobile. James had left the van and was proceeding westbound on the bridge to alert the police of the accident.
Meanwhile, Samuel G. Trepp, II, entered the left lane of the upper level of the bridge. He accelerated to near fifty miles per hour. Trepp also noticed James walking westbound. Believing James to be a "jumper on the bridge," Trepp's "attention was directed towards the man," for ten to fifteen seconds. During this time, Trepp was unaware that Blackwood's vehicle, which was directly in front of his, had come to a complete stop.
Still stopped behind the van, Blackwood looked in his mirrors for an opportunity to change lanes and noticed Trepp's vehicle rapidly approaching his own. As Trepp advanced, Blackwood slowly inched his car forward towards the rear of the parked van attempting to give Trepp more space in which to stop. Still unable to move into the right lane, Blackwood stopped a second time within inches of the rear bumper of the parked van.
After passing James, Trepp shifted his focus forward. He immediately saw Blackwood's vehicle's taillights. The vehicle was at a distance of "[a]pproximately two car lengths." Panicked, Trepp "slammed" his brakes. His car slid and collided with the rear of Blackwood's vehicle. The force of the impact propelled Blackwood's vehicle into the rear bumper of the parked van. The collision caused injuries to Ali.
Ali sued Fathers, James, Blackwood, Murphy and others. Fathers and James moved for summary judgment. Judge Claude Coleman granted the motion, finding that no jury "could find that the [Fathers] vehicle was the proximate cause of . . . th[e] accident." Ali moved for reconsideration. The judge denied the motion.
On appeal, Ali contends that the judge should not have granted summary judgment because the conduct of James and Fathers, "raises material issues of fact as to the proximate cause of injuries suffered by [plaintiff]." Ali argues that issues of "plural and/or concurrent causes . . . are within the direct province of the jury," and alleges that this event involves three concurrent causes: Trepp's negligent driving; Fathers' negligence in "failing to properly instruct and supervise" James and failing "to properly maintain the van[;]" and James's negligence in stopping the van without engaging any lights. Ali relies on the language of Model Jury Charge (Civil), § 6.12 as "dispositive[ly]" demonstrating that a jury must decide issues of proximate cause where a plaintiff alleges concurrent causes.
Ali also argues that there are issues of material fact pertaining to whether Fathers' or James's conduct was a proximate cause of his injuries. Specifically, Ali points to James's negligent conduct in stopping the van in the left lane of the bridge "without engaging its flashers, headlights, taillights, or hazard lights [as] creat[ing] a question of proximate cause that should be presented to the trier of fact as a matter of law." We are not persuaded by either of these arguments.
Although proximate cause is an issue normally reserved for the jury, "that rule . . . is far from absolute." Shelcusky v. Garjulio, 172 N.J. 185, 206 (2008) (Verniero, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part). It is well-settled that the issue of proximate causation "may be removed from the factfinder in the highly extraordinary case in which reasonable minds could not differ on whether that issue has been established." Fleuhr v. City of Cape May, 159 N.J. 532, 543 (1999).
Summary judgment is appropriate only if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). A trial court deciding a motion for summary judgment must conclude whether the evidence presented, "when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, [is] sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court. Prudential Prop & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998); Walker v. Atl. Chrysler Plymouth, 216 N.J. Super. 255, 258 (App. Div. 1987).
We agree with the judge that the reason for the van's presence in the lane was inconsequential because the "fact that the van was in front of [Blackwood] . . . had nothing to do with [Trepp] running in to the rear of Blackwood['s vehicle]." See Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 11 (1969) (holding jury's consideration of plaintiff's failure to use turn signal was error where there was no evidence that the "defendant . . . was in any way misled by [plaintiff's] failure [to use a signal] . . . [and] there was no causal connection between the alleged failure and the collision."); see also Restatement of Torts § 432(1) (1934) ("[T]he actor's negligent conduct is not a substantial factor in bringing about harm to another if it would have been sustained even if the actor had not been negligent.").
A party opposing a motion for summary judgment must present more than the self-serving facts to establish that a material issue of fact exists. See Fargas v. Gorham, 276 N.J. Super. 135, 139-40 (Law Div. 1994) (holding that driver of following vehicle in rear-end collision suit was unable to defeat summary judgment motion solely on their unsupported contention that the lead vehicle stopped suddenly). A plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's negligent conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Dawson v. Bunker Hill Plaza Assocs., 289 N.J. Super. 309, 322 (App. Div.), cert. denied, 146 N.J. 569 (1996); Thorn v. Travel Care, Inc., 296 N.J. Super. 341, 346 (1997) ("It is fundamental that in order to impose tort liability upon a defendant, a plaintiff must prove . . . proximate cause."). A component of proximate cause is factual causation. Kulas v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 41 N.J. 311, 317 (1964) (citing Restatement of Torts § 432(1) (1934) ("[T]he actor's negligent conduct is not a substantial factor in bringing about harm to another if it would have been sustained even if the actor had not been negligent.")). In Dolson, the Supreme Court held in connection with a rear end collision that:
It is elementary that a following car in the same lane of traffic is obligated to maintain a reasonably safe distance behind the car ahead, having due regard to the speed of the preceding vehicle and the traffic upon and condition of the highway. Failure to do so resulting a collision, is negligence and a jury should be so instructed.
Dolson, supra, 55 N.J. at 10 (citations omitted); see also N.J.S.A. 39:4-89 (codifying the common law principle). A driver failing to meet this standard is negligent. See Paiva v. Pfeiffer, 229 N.J. Super. 276, 280 (App. Div. 1988); Roberts v. Hooper, 181 N.J. Super. 474, 478 (App. Div. 1981) (holding that a driver of a motor vehicle on a New Jersey road is to "exercise reasonable care in the control of his car and in making observations of traffic ahead, to drive at a reasonably safe speed and to maintain a reasonably safe distance behind the vehicle ahead, under all the circumstances."). Therefore, if a driver's negligence results in a rear-end collision, the driver's conduct is the proximate cause of the accident as a matter of law.
From our careful review of the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Ali, and judged against the standards set out above, we conclude that the presence of Fathers van on the bridge was not a concurrent proximate cause of Ali's injuries. Therefore, Judge Coleman was correct in granting the motion for summary judgment to Fathers and James.
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