On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1020-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically argued February 3, 2011
Before Judges Fuentes, Gilroy and Ashrafi.
This is a personal injury cause of action filed by plaintiff Shawn Harter to recover damages for a work-related accident. The trial court dismissed plaintiff's claims against all of the named defendants as a matter of law. Plaintiff now appeals. We affirm. We derive the following facts from the record developed before the trial court.
Defendants Straube Regional Center, LLC, and Winn Thompson own the Straube Regional Center (Straube Center). Defendant Geo Matrix Construction was the general contractor who built the Straube Center and retained defendant Fire Suppression, Inc. (FSI) to install and maintain the fire suppression and sprinkler systems at the Straube Center.
At all times relevant to this case, plaintiff was employed by FSI as an apprentice pipe fitter. Plaintiff first started working for FSI in 2003. He had held various other jobs before beginning with FSI, including working as a "helper" for about six months at another fire sprinkler company. On the day of the accident in 2007, plaintiff and defendant Billy Holmes, a mechanic employed by FSI, responded to an emergency service call at the Straube Center.
When they arrived at the Straube Center, Holmes told plaintiff that he was going to talk to a maintenance man about the job. Plaintiff remained in the van to organize the tools that would be needed to complete the work. When Holmes returned, he told plaintiff that the system was "shut down" and that they needed to "pipe out a relief valve." Although he never had any prior contact with that maintenance man, plaintiff testified at his deposition that he believed he was an employee of the Straube Center.
According to plaintiff, while he and Holmes were inside the building's control room, Holmes received a call from FSI supervisor Jay Lane who told Holmes that someone from the Straube Center had called him and indicated that "the system was shut down and everything was good to go." Holmes, the only person who had spoken to Lane about the service call, relayed this information to plaintiff. Plaintiff specifically asked Holmes whether the system was "shut down," and Holmes answered "yes" on two separate occasions - once before plaintiff went outside to retrieve tools from the van, and again upon plaintiff's return.
Plaintiff testified that when he returned from the van with the tools, Holmes was "messing with certain things on the valves, the dry system, the wet system." At this point, Holmes directed plaintiff to "take the plate off of the dry valve," a task that he had never done before that day. Holmes told plaintiff that this task could be done because the system was "down" and "drained down." Plaintiff understood this to mean that "[t]he system was drained. All the pressure was relieved off the valve." Although plaintiff acknowledges that he was aware at the time that he could verify this critical condition by checking both the water pressure and air pressure gauges, which were both located in the "immediate vicinity" of where the work was to be performed, he did not do so because he relied on Holmes as "his mechanic."
When plaintiff began taking the plate off the dry valve, Holmes was standing approximately ten to fifteen feet away right outside the doorway of the control room, smoking a cigarette. Plaintiff removed seven of the eight bolts surrounding the plate, and then tapped on the plate with his Crescent wrench because "the plate kind of molds itself a little bit to the valve. . . ." When the metal plate came loose, it struck plaintiff in the face due to air and water pressure. The force of the blow "knocked [plaintiff] back into duct work and the plate cut into [his] face." Holmes was the first person to come to plaintiff's aid. Plaintiff cannot remember the substance of Holmes's statements; the only thing he recalls is Holmes repeatedly telling him he was sorry.
Plaintiff suffered "a severe facial laceration" resulting in a scar. He lost seven teeth and required eleven root canals to salvage other teeth. He underwent "numerous surgeries for [his] injuries caused by the impact including a bone graft in the gum area." Plaintiff received workers' compensation ...