What is “Negligence” for the purpose of a car crash”
JEAN-PIERRE THERRIEN v. LYNDA BLOW, Decided March 4, 2020 (Not Approved for Publication and Shall Not Be binding on any trial court)
Submitted by New Jersey Workers Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
Plaintiff, Jean-Pierre Therrien, an on duty Metuchen police officer observed a disabled motor vehicle with its hazard lights activated blocking the intersection of Grove Avenue and Route 27. Plaintiff approached the vehicle to provide assistance and spoke with the driver, defendant Lynda Blow. Upon learning defendant’s vehicle “had run out of gas[,]” plaintiff instructed her to remain in the car and place it in neutral so he could push it closer to the side of the busy roadway. Defendant obeyed plaintiff’s instructions and steered the car toward the side of the road as plaintiff pushed from behind. The car struck the curb and, sensing the vehicle was no longer moving, plaintiff continued to push with more strength. He felt pain in his left foot and ankle; the result of a ruptured Achilles tendon. (Obviously the police officer filed a Workers Compensation claim as per his rights under New Jersey Compensation Law. This law suit is a third party action against the person he believes caused the injury.)
Legal standard for ‘negligence’
“To sustain a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must establish four elements: ‘(1) a duty of care, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) proximate cause, and (4) actual damages.'” Townsend v. Pierre, 221 N.J. 36, 51 (2015) (quoting Polzo v. Cty. of Essex, 196 N.J. 569, 584 (2008)). Plaintiff seemingly asserts that permitting one’s car to run out of gas is per se negligence, but he provides no authority for that proposition nor could we find any. We acknowledge that the driver of a vehicle that becomes disabled has a duty to exercise reasonable care such that the vehicle does not pose a danger to others using the highway. Melone v. Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co., 18 N.J. 163, 171–75 (1955); Shappell v. Apex Express, Inc., 131 N.J.L. 583, 585 (E & A 1944). For example, had defendant failed to activate her flashing lights so as to warn oncoming drivers, and a collision resulted, a jury might find she breached a duty owed, and that breach was a proximate cause of any accident and injuries that resulted. Id. at 588. However, that is not what occurred. N.J.S.A. 39:4-136, which plaintiff cited to the motion judge as justification for his action provides that “[a]ny vehicle . . . which is disabled to the extent that the operator cannot move it . . . shall be deemed a nuisance and a menace to the safe and proper regulation of traffic and any peace officer may provide for the removal of such vehicle.”
The question then becomes whether defendant striking the curb could support plaintiff’s cause of action for negligence. Here, we agree with the motion judge that even if the defendant negligently steered her car as plaintiff pushed, her negligence was not a proximate cause of his injury. “A basic notion of our law is that, generally, a tortfeasor should be liable for only the harm she actually caused to the plaintiff.” Komlodi v. Picciano, 217 N.J. 387, 411 (2014) (citing Scafidi v. Seiler, 119 N.J. 93, 112–13 (1990)). “Proximate cause consists of ‘any cause which in the natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces the result complained of and without which the result would not have occurred.'” Townsend, 221 N.J. at 51 (emphasis added) (quoting Conklin v. Hannoch Weisman, 145 N.J. 395, 418 (1996)). “Proximate cause has been described as a standard for limiting liability for the consequences of an act based ‘upon mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent.'” Fleuhr v. City of Cape May, 159 N.J. 532, 543 (1999) (quoting Caputzal v. The Lindsay Co., 48 N.J. 69, 77–78 (1966)). While usually an issue left to the factfinder, “the issue of proximate cause ‘may be removed from the factfinder in the highly extraordinary case in which reasonable minds could not differ on whether that issue has been established.'” Townsend, 221 N.J. at 60 (quoting Fleuhr 159 N.J. at 543).
“The general principles governing intervening and superseding causes are well settled. Only their application is difficult.” Lynch v. Scheininger, 162 N.J. 209, 226 (2000). On occasion, “our courts have determined that intervening events constituted superseding causes as a matter of law[.]” Id. at 229. We need not explore the contours of these two concepts in detail, except to summarize as follows: “the doctrine of superseding cause focuses on whether events or conduct that intervene subsequent to the defendant’s negligence are sufficiently unrelated to or unanticipated by that negligence to warrant termination of the defendant’s responsibility.” Id. at 230.