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Burden to Apportion Damages For Two Successive Accidents Shifted to Defendants If Plaintiff Suffered “Unitary” Harm

By on February 19, 2021 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Joseph Bucchi was involved in a pedestrian motor vehicle accident after an alleged altercation with defendant Janet DeLuca. After found lying in the street by another individual, he “wobbled into the street,” and was struck by defendant Joan Strothers’ vehicle. The issue in Bucchi v. DeLuca, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2066 (App. Div. Oct. 29, 2020), was which party had the burden to apportion plaintiff’s injuries between these two successive accidents.

At the trial court level, the trial court judge initially ruled that the defendants had the burden to apportion plaintiff’s injuries between the accidents. Defendant Strothers filed a motion for reconsideration and the judge reversed himself. The trial court judge found that the plaintiff had the burden of proof as to the issue of damages and plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence allocating any injuries to the second accident. Hence, the judge entered an order dismissing defendant Strothers.

Thereafter, the case was tried and a jury found that both plaintiff and defendant DeLuca were negligent (as to the first accident) and allocated sixty percent of the responsibility for the first accident to plaintiff. Thus, the judge entered an order in favor of defendant DeLuca.

The plaintiff filed an appeal, arguing that “when an individual is injured in successive accidents, which occur close in time, the burden shifts to the alleged tortfeasors to apportion responsibility for the injuries between the accidents.” Plaintiff contended that the trial judge made a mistake by imposing the burden of apportionment upon him and by granting summary judgment to Strothers because his experts did not allocate some portion of the injuries to the second accident.

The Appellate Division held that the trial court judge correctly determined that the burden of apportionment of damages should not be shifted to defendants because plaintiff was not entirely without fault in either accident. Also, the judge correctly found that the defendants “were not more knowledgeable or in a better position than plaintiff to apportion the damages between the two accidents.”

But, the Appellate Division was “convinced plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to show that he suffered a unitary harm caused by concurrent wrongs of the two defendants. A unitary harm is an indivisible injury where ‘the only method of apportioning damages is through the acts or inactions of the defendants who caused the unitary harm or injury.’”

Based upon the expert reports submitted, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence that the plaintiff’s head injury could have been caused by the second accident with Strothers. Further, plaintiff presented sufficient proofs to support the conclusion that he suffered a unitary harm in the successive accidents and that this head injuries were not capable of apportionment. Defendant Strothers failed to show that, as a matter of law, that none of these injuries could be attributable to the second accident.

Hence, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court for trial as to plaintiff’s claims against Strothers for his head injuries. At trial, the jury must determine if Strothers was negligent and if such negligence was a proximate cause of his head injuries. Then the jury would determine if plaintiff was negligent and, if so, allocate negligence between the two. If the jury finds that Strothers was not negligent or the plaintiff’s negligence exceeds 51%, then a judgment would be entered for Strothers.            

However, if the jury finds that Strothers was negligent and plaintiff’s negligence does not exceed 51%, the judge must determine whether the jury is capable of apportioning plaintiff’s head injuries between the two accidents. If not, the judge must apportion plaintiff’s damages equally between the two accidents.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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