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Loss of Control Over Motor Vehicle Due to Slippery Substance on Roadway Does Not Definitively Establish Negligence

By on February 8, 2019 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Fr. Babu T. Paramel (“Paramel”) was in a motor vehicle accident with defendant Merca Martinez (“Merca”) on Rt. 7 in Jersey City. Prior to the accident, Paramel had been driving eastbound on Rt. 7 and Merca was travelling westbound. As plaintiff was driving over a bridge, Merca lost control of her car due to a slippery sludge like material that had spilled onto the roadway, entered plaintiff’s lane, and struck his vehicle. The issue in Paramel v. Martinez, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1701 (App. Div. July 11, 2017) was whether Merca’s loss of control over her motor vehicle due to the slippery substance on the roadway established her negligence.

After the accident, the police responded to the accident scene and saw that slippery material had spilled onto both sides of the roadway but it was thicker on the westbound side upon which Merca was traveling before the accident. The police determined that the slippery sludge like substance caused a dangerous condition on the roadway, which was so bad, that they shut the roadway down. The investigation revealed that a truck owned by the third-party defendant DJM Transport, LLC and driven by third-party defendant Orelvy Gonzalez had discharged hazardous sewage onto the roadway.

Following the completion of discovery, the defendants (Merca Martinez, the driver, and José Martinez, the owner), filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting a dismissal. The motion judge granted the motion and held that there was no evidence that Merca was negligent because “the mere happening of an accident does not bespeak negligence.” The law is clear that there can be no recovery for damages merely upon proof of the happening of an accident. It is the plaintiff’s burden to prove negligence.

In prior case law (Mockler v. Russman, 102 N.J. Super. (App. Div. 1968)), the Appellate Division held that “the loss of control over a motor vehicle on a slippery roadway does not definitively establish negligence, nor does it justify an inference of negligence on the part of an operator of a motor vehicle.” In the Mockler case, the Appellate Division held that should this rule be otherwise, every automobile driver would need to stay off the public roads when the roads happened to be slippery. The Court further stated that the “sudden and unexpected skidding of an automobile is one of the natural hazards of driving on icy roads and that it may befall even the most cautious of drivers.” In Mockler, the Appellate Division also stated that if the driver was operating his car as would a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances, he would not be held negligent merely because his car skidded. However, skidding could be evidence of negligence if it appears that it was caused by the failure of the driver to take reasonable precautions to avoid it when he knew or should have known of the conditions and that such a result would be probable in the absence of precautions.

Hence, in Paramel, the Appellate Division followed Mockler and held that more than the loss of control over motor vehicle would be required to warrant an inference of negligence. The plaintiff would need to prove that “a defendant could have taken reasonable precautions to avoid the accident.” In this case, the Appellate Division pointed out that there was no evidence that Merca knew or should have known of the presence of the slippery substance on the roadway or could have taken evasive maneuvers had she known about the dangerous condition. Accordingly, the Court found that, without proof of negligence, the motion judge properly granted summary judgment to the defendants.

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Betsy G. Ramos

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.

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