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Questions Of Proper Speed And Control Of A Vehicle Found To Be Question Of Fact In Auto Accident Case, Precluding Order For Summary Judgment

By on May 8, 2020 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

The plaintiff Alma Miley was involved in an automobile accident with the defendant Andrew Friel.  It occurred at an intersection in which plaintiff’s direction of travel was controlled by a stop sign but defendant’s direction of travel was not.  The issue in Miley v. Friel, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 57 (App. Div. January 9, 2020) was whether the trial court judge properly granted summary judgment despite conflicting testimony of the speeds of the involved cars. 

The accident occurred at the intersection of Holly and High Streets in Glassboro.  Plaintiff claimed that she stopped at the stop sign on Holly Avenue and looked both ways, preceding into the intersection at about 5-7 miles per hour.  When she was in the middle of the intersection, almost to the other side, the front of her vehicle was struck by defendant’s vehicle.  She claimed that the defendant driver was driving well above the speed limit, causing the collision.

The defendant’s version of the car accident was much different.  He claimed that he was driving at about 20 miles per hour, while plaintiff was probably driving at 30-40 miles per hour, but definitely over the speed limit at the time of the impact.  He noticed plaintiff’s vehicle at the very last second as she was coming through the intersection. 

The defendant had a passenger who partially corroborated and partially contradicted the versions of both the plaintiff and the defendant.   According to the passenger, both vehicles were traveling at about the same speed at the time of impact.  The passenger stated that the plaintiff was traveling at least 35-40 miles per hour and defendant was traveling about 35 miles per hour.  The defendant’s passenger testified that there was no indication that plaintiff attempted to stop before the impact. 

At the trial court level, the defendant successfully moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence demonstrating that the defendant was speeding at the time of impact.  The plaintiff argued that the record at least supported a comparative negligence theory.  She also argued that the stop sign was erected without prior approval of the Commissioner of Transportation and, thus, rendered the intersection uncontrolled.  She contended that she was the first vehicle to enter the intersection and, therefore, if the intersection was uncontrolled, she would have the right of way.

The trial court judge concluded that the evidence was so in favor of the defendant that the plaintiff had not stated a claim from which reasonable minds could differ in deciding that she was at least 51% or more at fault.  In his decision, he found that the plaintiff had the stop sign and the defendant had the right of way.  He also found that the plaintiff needed an expert to opine as to the speeds of the involved cars.  Because discovery had not yet closed, the trial judge dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint without prejudice, giving her the opportunity to retain an accident reconstruction expert to opine that the vehicle driven by the defendant was speeding at the time of impact.  He also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the stop sign was illegal. 

The plaintiff did not retain an accident reconstruction expert and this appeal ensued. 

Initially, the Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff’s contentions that challenged the legal effect of the unapproved stop sign.  Based upon New Jersey law, the unlawful installation of a stop sign does not render the sign ineffective for purposes of imposing civil liability because motorists may reasonably expect that a stop sign will be respected.

However, the Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court judge that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment.  The Court noted that in an automobile negligence action “questions of proper speed and control of a vehicle are pre-eminently questions of fact for the jury to determine.”  Also, the Court noted that the “favored driver” approaching an intersection “has a continuing duty to exercise due care even though the disfavored driver has stop sign to obey.”

Based upon the Appellate Division’s review of the record, the Court found that there were material issues of fact “as to whether defendant made proper pre-accident observations and whether he took reasonable and effective measures to avoid the accident.”  In the Court’s view, the facts were not so one-sided that the defendant was entitled to prevail as a matter of law. 

The Appellate Division also disagreed with the trial judge that expert testimony was necessary to resolve the conflicting versions of the speed of the vehicles at the time of the collision.  The Court noted that our Supreme Court had previously observed that “traditional examples of permissible lay opinions include the speed of which a vehicle was traveling.”  Thus, the Appellate Division found that both the parties and the defendant’s passenger may all testify as to their perceptions of each vehicle speed without the necessity of expert testimony. 

Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings. 

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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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