On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0706-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano and Kennedy.
Plaintiff Justin Fitzpatrick was injured while clearing leaves from the discharge chute on a riding mower he was operating in the course of his employment for defendant Vreeland Brothers Landscaping (Vreeland). He filed suit against the manufacturer of the riding mower, Walker Manufacturing Company (Walker), on theories of negligence and strict liability, and Vreeland, alleging it had "knowingly permitt[ed], direct[ed] and/or compell[ed] the plaintiff to utilize equipment with a disabled safety mechanism . . . [.]" Plaintiff appeals from an order entered by the trial court on May 13, 2011, following the conclusion of discovery, granting summary judgment in favor of Vreeland.*fn1
For reasons set forth hereinafter, we are satisfied that the motion judge correctly determined that Vreeland was entitled to summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint. Accordingly, we affirm.
Our review of a trial court order granting summary judgment is de novo, and we apply the same standard as the trial court in determining whether there are any genuinely disputed issues of material fact sufficient to warrant resolution of the disputed issues by the trier of fact. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). Our analysis requires that we first determine whether the moving party has demonstrated that there are no genuine disputes as to material facts, and then we decide "whether the motion judge's application of the law was correct." Atl. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hillside Bottling Co., 387 N.J. Super. 224, 230-31 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 104 (2006). In so doing, we view the evidence "in the light most favorable to the part[y] opposing summary judgment." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995). We accord no special deference to the motion judge's conclusions on issues of law. Zabilowicz v. Kelsey, 200 N.J. 507, 512 (2009).
Following are the salient facts viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff. In 2006, the twenty-four-year-old plaintiff worked as a foreman for Vreeland, an entity that provided landscaping and lawn maintenance services for residential, commercial and industrial premises. He had worked for Vreeland previously as a laborer doing "lawn maintenance", but returned to Vreeland in 2006 at the behest of its principals.
Plaintiff had been trained in the operation of the four Walker riding mowers owned by Vreeland and had also been trained to clear debris that accumulated in the discharge chute that funneled grass clippings from the cutting blades beneath the mower into a "grass catcher" mounted behind the operator seat. The funneling action is facilitated by a small fan blade - a "blower impeller" - located within the discharge chute approximately twelve inches below the opening into the grass catcher.
The Walker mower is equipped with a clutch lever on the right side of the machine. When the clutch lever is pulled, a mechanical linkage is engaged which transmits motor power to the wheels and cutting blades. It also releases an internal "band brake" which allows the blower impeller to turn. When the clutch lever is disengaged, the engine remains on, but the mechanical linkages to the mower's wheels and cutting blades are disconnected. Also, when the clutch is disengaged, the band brake is automatically applied to the blower impeller, causing it to stop rotating within 5 seconds, if the band brake is "properly adjusted."
Further, the mower is equipped with a safety interlocking device which automatically shuts off the engine if the operator were to get off the seat while the machine is running and the clutch is engaged. This device does not shut off the mower engine if the clutch is disengaged, however.
On November 26, 2006, plaintiff was assigned by Vreeland to undertake maintenance work with a crew at a commercial property. He was using a Walker mower to collect leaves when he noticed the grass catcher was full. Plaintiff stated that when the catcher was full, his procedure was to "disconnect the blades which is a lever on your right, which you push down. And you put the brake up, which is on your left. And you get off the mower." Then, he would open a "clam shell" to gain access to the discharge ...