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Sheila Gwinner and Horst Gwinner v. Michael Matt

August 2, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle


SIMANDLE, Chief Judge:


This matter involving the alleged negligence of a motorist opening his car door on a roadway with a designated bike lane is before the Court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). [Docket Item 17.] The principal issue to be determined is whether a dispute of fact exists that Defendant breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiff when she collided with his car door as he was exiting his vehicle. As will be explained at length below, the Court finds Plaintiff's negligence claim raises a question of material fact to be decided by a jury. Plaintiff has also raised a dispute of fact that her alleged injuries are permanent and causally related to the accident for purposes of the limitation-on-lawsuit threshold of the New Jersey Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act, so Defendant's motion will be denied.


Plaintiff, Sheila Gwinner, filed this lawsuit against Defendant, Michael Matt, based on an accident that occurred in June 2008, when Ms. Gwinner collided with Mr. Matt's car door while she was bicycling on Dune Drive in Avalon, New Jersey. Ms. Gwinner alleges Mr. Matt negligently opened his car door into the bike lane where she was traveling, striking her and causing her to suffer serious personal injuries.

On June 14, 2010, Plaintiff commenced a civil action against Defendant in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d).*fn1 [Docket Item 1.] According to Ms. Gwinner's Complaint, Mr. Matt's negligence consisted of, in part, "failing to observe [her] bicycle on the bicycle path" and "failing to keep a reasonable lookout for other vehicles lawfully on the road." Compl. at ¶ 12. Ms. Gwinner then claims that, as a result of Mr. Matt's negligence, she suffered "severe and painful injuries," which required medical treatment, restricted her personal and work activities, and resulted in permanent injuries. Id. at ¶ 13.

On the morning of June 15, 2008 Mr. Matt parked his vehicle in front of his father's house, in the parking lane along Dune Drive. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 17:23-24. At this location, Dune Drive is a four-lane roadway, two lanes north and two lanes south, with a bike lane and a parking lane. Id. at 19:4-7. When Mr. Matt opened his door, he "heard a loud bang," and then observed a "young lady [] on the ground with her bicycle in front of the car to the left a little bit." Id. at 28:5-8. Ms. Gwinner was traveling at fifteen miles per hour along Dune Drive on the morning of the accident, and she did not observe Mr. Matt's vehicle prior to the collision. Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 34:5-10. Additionally, Ms. Gwinner testified that, when the accident occurred, she was riding within the bike lane (id. at 34:20-21); however, she did not observe and does not know whether Mr. Matt's car door actually extended into the bike lane. Id. at 40:7-13.

Ms. Gwinner carries automobile insurance provided by Progressive Insurance, an insurance company authorized to conduct business in the State of New Jersey. She alleges that as a result of the accident, she suffered "traumatic multi level disc herniation/protrusion/radiculopathy, traumatic right knee fracture/contusion/anterior horn tear, and traumatic right hand/thumb tendonitis with radial/median nerve neuritis and joint inflammation." Compl. at ¶ 13.*fn2 Plaintiff claims that these injuries demonstrate a "permanent injury" as set forth in the New Jersey Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act ("AICRA") at N.J. Stat. Ann. § 39:6A-8(a) and that she has produced sufficient objective medical evidence to support her claim.

Pl.'s Opp'n Br. at 4.

In the present motion, Defendant argues that he is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to "establish proof a negligence claim as a matter of law." Def.'s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. at 2. Specifically, Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to establish the alleged breach of duty, as she "produced no evidence that Mr. Matt's car door extended into the bike lane." Id. at 3. Defendant also argues that Plaintiff is barred from pursuing non-economic damages*fn3 because she has failed to produce objective medical evidence demonstrating she suffered permanent injuries, as a result the accident in question, to her neck, right knee, and right wrist. Id. at 15-16.

For the following reasons, the Court finds Plaintiff has sufficiently raised a question of material fact regarding her breach of duty claim; Defendant's motion is denied on this issue. Additionally, the Court finds Plaintiff has provided sufficient objective medical evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that she suffered permanent injuries as a result of the accident; therefore, Plaintiff has met AICRA's limitation-on-lawsuit threshold, and Defendant's motion is denied.


A.Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Summary judgment will not be denied based on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings; instead, some evidence must be produced to support a material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A); United States v. Premises Known as 717 S. Woodward Street, Allentown, Pa., 2 F.3d 529, 533 (3d Cir. 1993). However, the Court will view any evidence in favor of the nonmoving party and extend any reasonable favorable inferences to be drawn from that evidence to that party. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999). Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may be entitled to summary judgment merely by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's case. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986).

B.Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's Negligence Claim

Under New Jersey law, for a plaintiff to establish a negligence claim she must show that the defendant "breached a duty of reasonable care, which constituted a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries." Brown v. Racquet Club of Bricktown, 95 N.J. 280, 288, 471 A.2d 25, 29 (1984). Furthermore, "negligence must be proved and will never be presumed, [] indeed there is a presumption against it, and [] the burden of proving negligence is on the plaintiff." Buckelew v. Grossbard, 87 N.J. 512, 525, 435 A.2d 1150 (1981) (citing Hansen v. Eagle-Picher Lead Co., 8 N.J. 133, 139, 84 A.2d 281 (1951)).

Plaintiff claims Defendant acted negligently when he opened his car door "into the bike lane where [she] was operating her bicycle." Pl.'s Opp'n Br. 2. She also alleges she suffered injuries as a result of Defendant's negligence. Id.

Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to present a valid negligence claim because she has not alleged a breach of duty that was the proximate cause of her injuries. Def.'s Br. in Supp. Summ. J. 2. Defendant argues Plaintiff has not produced evidence showing his car door entered into or obstructed the bike lane. Id. at 3. Defendant also claims the evidence shows Ms. Gwinner was solely responsible for her injuries because she was riding her bicycle outside of the bike lane when she collided with his car door. Id. To support this claim, Defendant argues that after the accident, he fully opened his door to see if it extended into the bike lane, which, he claims, it did not. Id. at 1.

1. Duty of Care

Neither party has addressed the existence of a duty of care in the instant case. Because the existence of a duty is essential to all negligence claims, however, the Court must tackle the issue.

"The question of whether a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid the risk of harm to another exists is one of fairness and policy that implicates many factors." Carvalho v. Toll Bros. and Developers, 143 N.J. 565, 573, 675 A.2d 209, 212. (citing Dunphy v. Gregor, 136 N.J. 99, 110, 642 A.2d 372 (1994)). Foreseeability is the first factor considered, as it is "the predicate for the duty to exercise reasonable care."

Id. at 573. While foreseeability is needed to determine whether a duty of care exists, it is not the only factor. Id. at 572. Courts also consider fairness and policy factors such as "the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution." Id. at 573 (quoting Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 439, 625 A.2d 1110. (1993)).

The Court will first address foreseeability. Mr. Matt was a resident of Avalon, who was aware of the existence of the bike lane along Dune Drive, and who had used the Dune Drive bike lane prior to the accident in question. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 9:20; 20:16-19, 22-23; 21:1-2. Mr. Matt was also aware that the Dune Drive bike lane was regularly used during the summer months, Avalon's tourist season. Id. at 46:3-7. The risk of harm posed by a collision between a cyclist and an automobile, or automobile door, is obvious. As a result, where bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, the risk of harm presented by obstructing or entering into the bike lane, or, more generally a bicyclist's lane of travel, was clearly foreseeable to Mr. Matt at the time of the accident.

"Once the foreseeability of an injured party is established, ... considerations of fairness and policy govern whether the imposition of a duty is warranted." Carvalho at 573, 675 A.2d at 212 (quoting Carter Lincoln Mercury, Inc. v. EMAR Group, Inc., 135 N.J. 182, 194-95, 638 A.2d 1288 (1994)). In Carvalho, a construction worker was killed when trench walls collapsed on him. Id. at 571-572, 675 A.2d at 212. In a suit against the site engineer, the New Jersey Supreme Court, after determining the risk of harm was foreseeable, held that imposing a duty of care on the engineer was warranted because there was a contractual relationship between the parties; the engineer was responsible for monitoring work progress, which implicated worksite safety; the engineer had control to change work conditions; and the engineer had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition because other trench walls had collapsed at the site. Id. at 575-578, 675 A.2d at 214-15.

Here, Mr. Matt and Ms. Gwinner had no prior existing relationship. In fact, their first actual encounter occurred after Ms. Gwinner had already collided with Mr. Matt's car door. Matt Dep., Ex. F at 28:4-15; Gwinner Dep., Ex. H at 37:4-10. Additionally, Mr. Matt had never previously been involved in an automobile accident involving a bicyclist. Ex. F at 46:12-16. But their relationship was a functional one: both were using vehicles on the limited roadway space of a public thoroughfare. Imposing a duty of care on Mr. Matt in terms of obstructing or otherwise interfering with a bicyclist's lane of travel is fair as a matter of public policy. The City of Avalon has created bike lanes presumably to promote bicycling generally and as an attempt to attract visitors. The explicit purpose of a bike lane is to minimize the risks inherent in roadways that accommodate automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians by providing bicyclists an exclusive lane of travel. Finally, imposing a duty of care in terms of keeping a proper lookout before crossing, entering into, or otherwise obstructing a bicyclists' lane of travel does not unduly burden motorists. At most, this duty requires a driver to ensure his automobile is parked fully in the parking lane and to check his review mirrors, or otherwise look out for bicyclists, prior to opening his car door and exiting his vehicle.

In conclusion, the possibility of a collision between a cyclist and a car or car door on roadways shared by cyclists and motorists, is foreseeable. Moreover, the public interest in promoting bicycle safety and the minimal burden placed on motorists to exercise reasonable care can lead only to the conclusion that Mr. Matt ...

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