June 27, 2012
CRISTINO RIOS,*FN1 PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
JOSEPH J. CROWE AND JAMES H. PAXSON & SONS, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-4088-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued April 17, 2012
Before Judges Simonelli and Hayden.
In this motor vehicle accident matter, defendants John Crowe (Crowe) and James H. Paxson & Sons, Inc. (Paxson)*fn2 appeal from the August 19, 2011 final judgment entered against them following a jury verdict. On appeal, defendants contend that the trial judge erred in barring the use of Crowe's deposition testimony at trial, and directing a verdict as to liability. We disagree, and affirm.
Crowe, a Maryland resident, was an employee of Paxson on February 16, 2008. At approximately 8:00 a.m. that day, Crowe was driving a company-owned tractor-trailer in the southbound center lane on Routes 1 & 9 in Elizabeth. When he reached the intersection of Fairmount Avenue, which was marked with a "No Left Turn" sign, he began to make an illegal left-hand turn from the center lane. Plaintiff Cristino Rios, who was driving his vehicle behind Crowe in the southbound left lane, applied his brakes but was unable to avoid colliding with the tractor-trailer's rear tires and was dragged into the intersection. Crowe received a summons for making an illegal turn, N.J.S.A. 39:4-123, but subsequently pled guilty without civil reservation to driving or operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2.*fn3
Plaintiff filed a complaint, seeking damages for the injuries he allegedly sustained as a result of the accident. Crowe and Paxson, represented by the same law firm, filed an answer. Counsel confirmed at oral argument of this appeal that Crowe, as Paxson's representative, certified defendants' answers to plaintiff's interrogatories. In addition, defense counsel had produced Crowe for his deposition in New Jersey.
Trial was scheduled for August 1, 2011. Prior thereto, plaintiff's counsel timely served a notice in lieu of subpoena demanding that defense counsel produce Crowe to testify at trial. Defense counsel responded that he would not produce Crowe because Crowe resided out-of-state, and Paxson would rely on Crowe's deposition testimony at trial.
On the day of trial, plaintiff moved in limine to bar the use of Crowe's deposition testimony at trial. Defendants cross-moved in limine to quash the subpoena and permit the use of Crowe's deposition. At oral argument on August 2, 2011, defense counsel stated for the first time that Crowe was no longer employed by Paxson, counsel's office had contacted Crowe, who advised that he would not appear because he had job interviews scheduled the week of the trial, and counsel's secretary had left Crowe a telephone message indicating that Crowe's expenses would be paid to appear for trial, but Crowe did not respond.
The trial judge granted plaintiff's motion, and denied defendants' cross-motion. The judge concluded that Crowe was absent but not unavailable to testify at trial, and had created his own unavailability.
Testimony began on August 2, 2011. Following the conclusion of his testimony, plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on liability pursuant to Rule 4:40-1. The judge granted the motion, holding that plaintiff's undisputed testimony established that Crowe was solely at fault in causing the accident. The trial continued on August 3, 4 and 8, 2011, for presentation of damages evidence. Crowe did not appear for trial.
The judge instructed the jury, without objection, that liability was not an issue for the jury to decide, Crowe had caused the accident, and the jury must determine whether defendants should be held wholly or partially responsible for plaintiff's injuries. The judge also instructed the jury that it was plaintiff's burden to prove that Crowe's negligence was a proximate cause of his injuries. Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $75,000. The judge entered final judgment on August 19, 2011, reflecting the jury's verdict. This appeal followed.
On appeal, defendants contend that the judge erred in barring the use of Crowe's deposition testimony at trial because Crowe was unavailable within the meaning of Rule 4:16-1(c), and Paxson had no control over him and did not procure his absence. We reject this contention.
"As a general rule, admission or exclusion of proffered evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge whose ruling is not disturbed unless there is a clear abuse of discretion." Dinter v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 252 N.J. Super. 84, 92 (App. Div. 1991); see also Purdy v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 184 N.J. Super. 123, 130 (App. Div. 1982). We grant substantial deference to the trial judge's discretion on evidentiary rulings. Benevenga v. Digregorio, 325 N.J. Super. 27, 32 (App. Div. 1999), certif. denied, 163 N.J. 79 (2000). Reversal is unwarranted unless the trial judge's ruling was "so wide of the mark that a manifest denial of justice resulted." State v. Carter, 91 N.J. 86, 106 (1982). We discern no abuse of discretion here.
Rule 4:16-1(c) provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
Except as otherwise provided by [Rule] 4:14-9(e), the deposition of a witness, whether or not a party, may be used by any party for any purpose, against any other party who was present or represented at the taking of the deposition or who had reasonable notice thereof if the court finds that the appearance of the witness cannot be obtained because of death or other inability to attend or testify, such as age, illness, infirmity or imprisonment, or is out of this state or because the party offering the deposition has been unable in the exercise of reasonable diligence to procure the witness's attendance by subpoena, provided, however, that the absence of the witness was not procured or caused by the offering party.
"The unavailability of a witness under R. 4:16-1(c) is essentially the same as under N.J.R.E. 804(a)(4) where all reasonable means to procure the declarant's attendance at trial must be exhausted." Avis Rent-A-Car, Inc. v. Cooper, 273 N.J. Super. 198, 202-03 (App Div. 1994); see also Witter by Witter v. Leo, 269 N.J. Super. 380, 391 (App. Div.) (noting that N.J.R.E. 804(a)(4) requires "that the party offering the deposition first demonstrate that there are no 'reasonable means to procure the declarant's attendance at trial.'") (quoting N.J.R.E. 804(a)(4)), certif. denied, 135 N.J. 469 (1994). Thus, Crowe's unavailability because he lives out-of-state must be viewed under this concept.
Here, Paxson merely made a last-minute telephone call to Crowe in an effort to procure his attendance at trial. This meager effort was woefully deficient to establish that Paxson had exhausted all reasonable means to procure Crowe's attendance at trial. Accordingly, we are satisfied that Paxson caused Crowe's absence from trial, and the trial judge did not abuse her discretion in precluding Paxson from using his deposition testimony at trial.
In addition, we extend the holding in Avis Rent-A-Car to this case. Although Crowe was no longer employed by Paxson at the time of trial, he had certified Paxson's answers to plaintiff's interrogatories and thus, he was Paxson's representative. As such, Paxson was required to produce him to testify at trial. Avis Rent-A-Car, supra, 273 N.J. Super. at 202-03.
Defendants contend that the judge erred in granting plaintiff's motion for a directed verdict on liability. We disagree.
In determining a motion for a directed verdict, the court must accept as true all evidence which supports the opposing party's position and accord that party the benefit of all inferences which can reasonably and legitimately be deduced therefrom. Potente v. Cnty. of Hudson, 187 N.J. 103, 111 (2006). If reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied. Ibid. Applying this standard, we are satisfied that the judge properly granted a directed verdict on liability. The undisputed evidence admitted at trial established that Crowe was solely at fault for causing the accident, and reasonable minds could not differ as to his liability.
We decline to address defendants' remaining contention that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Defendants did not file a motion for a new trial on that ground in the trial court. R. 2:10-1.