NJ: Evidentiary Rule of Res Ipsa Loquitur Only Available if Proximate Cause is Proven

It was an icy night on January 2, 2003 when a UPS truck driver crested a hill on the New Jersey Turnpike to find an accident between two cars in progress in front of him. Fending off a phantom truck that sideswiped him as they both tried to slow down, the truck driver braked but not enough to prevent a collision with one of the cars now stopped on the roadway. The scene continued to unfold when a distraught woman emerged from the second car stopped on the shoulder and exclaimed that her boyfriend had jumped over the highway barrier to his death 100’ below.

Under these curious facts, in Cockerline v. Menendez, –N.J.—2010 WL 374766 (App.Div. 2010), the NJ Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s application of the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. After settling with the driver of the passenger car, the soon to be ex-wife of the deceased pursued her claim against UPS alleging that her husband had died as a result of the actions of the UPS driver. In fact, she argued that the instrumentality that caused her husband’s death was in the defendants’ exclusive control.

The Appellate Division disagreed zeroing in on the issue of proximate cause questioning the proof in the case on what exact instrumentality had caused the fatal jump. The investigating police officer had determined that there had been no contact between the truck and the decedent’s car. After an extensive review of the evidence, the Court found it unclear what led the decedent to go over the barrier and when in the accident sequence he had done so. Since the plaintiff failed to establish proximate cause, res ipsa loquitur was not properly applied, and the Court reversed a $2.3 million verdict.

See Cockerline v. Menendez, –N.J.—2010 WL 374766 (App.Div. 2010) at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/a4635-07.pdf

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