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Ali v. James

October 14, 2010

BILAL ALI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
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.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 ...


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