vicarious liability of an automobile owner where a Pennsylvania plaintiff was injured in New Jersey by a Michigan defendant while defendant drove an automobile rented from the New York office of a national rental car company.
However accurately the White opinion stated the then choice of law rules of New Jersey, it does not state the law of New York today. The decision mentions the landmark Neumeier case only once, in a footnote, where it concludes that the rules stated in that case apply solely to guest-host disputes and that the relationship of the Neumeier parties "centered" outside New York. 398 F. Supp. at 139 n.9. But in Schultz, the New York Court of Appeals thereafter applied the Neumeier rules outside of a guest-host context. Moreover, that decision disfavored the multi-factored "center of gravity" analysis (which gives weight to facts such as the origin and destination of defendant's automobile trip) employed in cases such as White. 65 N.Y.2d at 197.
Plaintiff also cites Johnson v. Hertz, 315 F. Supp. 302 (S.D.N.Y. 1970), in which the court applied section 388 in a case brought by a Massachusetts domiciliary for injuries caused in a New Jersey accident by the unknown driver of a Hertz-owned automobile rented in New York. But that case, which was decided before Neumeier, no longer appears to state the law of New York.
This court shall apply New Jersey law regarding the vicarious liability of the owner of the automobile driven by Reidinger.
Buglioli submits no evidence tending to show either that Reidinger was an agent of Enterprise or that Enterprise was negligent in renting the vehicle to Reidinger. His motion was apparently based on the erroneous belief that New York law would apply to the issue of an automobile owner's liability.
With no evidence that Reidinger was an agent of Enterprise or that Enterprise was negligent, the court grants summary judgment to Enterprise, dismissing all claims against it.
Buglioli also moves for an interlocutory order granting him summary judgment on the issue of Reidinger's liability in negligence. He contends that Reidinger is collaterally estopped from denying liability due to Reidinger's guilty plea.
Insofar as the application of New York or New Jersey law leads to differing results on the issue of Reidinger's liability, this court must follow, under principles announced in Neumeier, the statutory and decisional law of New Jersey.
In order to establish that Reidinger is liable under the New Jersey law of negligence, Buglioli must show by a preponderance of the evidence that Reidinger breached a duty of care, directly and proximately causing his injury.
A. Duty of care
Reidinger contends that he owed no duty of care to Buglioli who, together with Reidinger and a third driver, was engaged in serious criminal or illegal conduct. He cites New Jersey Mfg. Ins. Co. v. McDermott, 201 N.J. Super. 251, 492 A.2d 1115 (Law Div. 1985), in which an insurance company won a declaratory judgment that it was not required to compensate defendant for his injuries.
There, defendant had been injured after he and an accomplice had robbed a store, escaped in a high-speed getaway, then crashed. According to the terms of the insurance policy, plaintiff insurance company was obliged to compensate defendant if defendant had a valid cause of action against any uninsured automobile driver. The court held that the defendant had no cause of action against his accomplice, the uninsured driver of the getaway car, because the accomplice owed no duty to an accomplice to drive a getaway car with reasonable care.
Whatever import the McDermott decision may have in preventing fleeing thieves from exacting insurance compensation, the case has no apparent application in negligence cases, as here, in which plaintiff and defendant recklessly or intentionally assaulted one another. In such cases, New Jersey courts have held that where plaintiff and defendant both engaged in aggravated assault, their relative liability will be resolved by application of the New Jersey comparative negligence statute. See, e.g., Bonpua v. Fagan, 253 N.J. Super. 475, 602 A.2d 287 (1992). The court knows of no New Jersey case finding no duty of care between such parties.
B. Breach of duty
New Jersey defines "negligence," referring to a breach of a duty of care, "as a failure to exercise in given circumstances that degree of care for the safety of others which a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances." Eaton v. Eaton, 119 N.J. 628, 635, 575 A.2d 858 (1990). An automobile driver "is under the duty of exercising for the safety of others that degree of care, precaution and vigilance in the operation of the car which a reasonably prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances." Id.
Buglioli says that Reidinger's guilty plea to two counts of aggravated assault with an automobile is conclusive proof of negligence. Plainly this evidence has great weight.
In Eaton v. Eaton, the New Jersey Supreme Court analyzed the significance of a prior plea of guilty to a traffic offense in a subsequent negligence action. There, a daughter had driven an automobile carelessly, causing the death of her mother who was seated next to her. The daughter pleaded guilty to a violation of the New Jersey careless-driving statute which provided:
A person who drives a vehicle on a highway carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of careless driving.
N.J. Stat. § 39:4-97 cited in Eaton, 119 N.J. at 642.
The father then brought a negligence action against the daughter, introducing her guilty plea as evidence. In reviewing the trial judge's charge to the jury, the Eaton court held that where a statute specifically incorporates a common-law negligence standard of care, a jury must find the defendant negligent if it finds that the defendant violated the careless-driving statute. It reasoned that a jury could not consistently find defendant had violated the careless-driving statute, yet find defendant non-negligent.
The Eaton court further held that the trial court properly admitted evidence of the daughter's guilty plea. But the court pointed out that a party who enters a guilty plea is not estopped from contesting the admitted fact, explaining that:
The plea is merely an admission of a party. As with other admissions, the party who has entered the plea may rebut or otherwise explain the circumstances surrounding the admission. Thus, a party who has pled guilty may try to persuade the jury that the plea was merely a compromise, or less a reflection of guilt than a balancing of the costs of contesting the charge with the burden of the conviction.
Id. at 644 (citations omitted). Cf. 18 Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, 18 Federal Practice and Procedure, § 4474 at 759 (1981) ("convictions based upon pleas rather than adjudication present sharply contrasting preclusion results").
The application of Eaton here is plain. Reidinger pleaded guilty to two counts of assault by automobile. The relevant statute provides:
A person is guilty of assault by auto when the person drives a vehicle recklessly and causes either serious bodily injury or bodily injury to another. Assault by auto is a crime of the fourth degree if serious bodily injury results and is a disorderly persons offense if bodily injury results.
N.J. Stat. § 2C:12-1(c).
The New Jersey assault-by-automobile statute clearly incorporates a common-law standard of care in that a factfinder could not consistently find that Reidinger was guilty of aggravated assault by automobile and that Reidinger had driven his car with "the degree of care . . . a reasonably prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances." Thus, if Reidinger violated this statute, he acted negligently.
Reidinger could have, but did not, submit any evidence that he entered a guilty plea as a "compromise," or that he pleaded guilty after "a balancing of the costs of contesting the charge with the burden of the conviction." Given his failure to submit evidence to contradict the plea, this court finds, by application of New Jersey law, that Reidinger was negligent.
Even if the court were not to rely on the Eaton decision, the court would find that Reidinger's conduct was, at a minimum, negligent. He admitted in open court he acted recklessly. He offers no evidence now that he exercised reasonable care at the time of the accident. Even his attorney, in his affidavit, characterized Reidinger's conduct as reckless.
C. Causation and injury
Buglioli has submitted uncontradicted evidence that Reidinger directly and proximately caused Buglioli's injury. Reidinger admitted in open court that as a result of his swerving toward Buglioli, Buglioli drove "off the road and into the post." Buglioli also submitted his physician's affidavit in which she attests to his substantial bodily injuries. The court finds that these injuries were foreseeably and proximately caused by Reidinger's negligent and reckless conduct.
Reidinger raises two defenses. He contends, first, that under New Jersey law a plaintiff assumes the risk of voluntarily participating in a sporting activities, citing Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions, Inc., 31 N.J. 44, 155 A.2d 90 (1959) and Pona v. Blvd. Arena, 35 N.J. Super. 148, 113 A.2d 529 (App. Div. 1955), and that Buglioli voluntarily participated in a "cat and mouse game." These cases provide no defense.
First, the court knows of no decision after New Jersey adopted its comparative negligence statute interposing "assumption of risk" as a complete defense in a negligence action. To the contrary, a recent case arising from a contact sport accident formulated an appropriate rule by adjusting the standard of care, not by finding "assumption of risk." See, e.g., Crawn v. Campo, 257 N.J. Super. 374, 608 A.2d 465 (1992) (holding, in actions arising from a contact sport accident, plaintiff must show "defendant acted in reckless disregard of the safety of others or intentionally").
Second, the court finds no New Jersey case applying a contact sport standard of care in a case involving aggravated assault, even when that assault had a game-like quality.
Last, even assuming the contact sport standard of care adopted by the Crawn court applies here, Buglioli has provided uncontradicted evidence that Reidinger "acted in reckless disregard" of Buglioli's safety.
Reidinger contends, second, that he is entitled to additional discovery to determine whether Buglioli's comparative negligence is greater than fifty percent, thereby barring Buglioli from recovery under New Jersey's comparative negligence statute. This argument assumes, incorrectly, that the amount of damages, if any, Buglioli may recover is at issue in this motion.
The court finds no genuine issue of material fact with respect to Reidinger's liability to Buglioli. The court grants summary judgment to Buglioli.
Dated: Brooklyn New York
January 20, 1993
Eugene H. Nickerson, U.S.D.J.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.