On October 23, 2018, New Jersey’s Appellate Division’s Committee on Publication approved a trial court opinion of the Hon. Joseph L. Marczyk, P.J.Cv., on a matter of first impression in New Jersey – whether, in the absence of expert testimony, a plaintiff in a motor vehicle negligence action can be asked as to whether airbags deployed at the time of the accident.
The dispute arose in the motor vehicle negligence case Auttika Taing v. James Braisted, ATL-L-2689-15. The dispute was raised in the context of an in limine application, made on behalf of the Plaintiff, seeking to bar defendant’s counsel from questioning plaintiff about whether or not airbags deployed during the course of a motor vehicle accident. Plaintiff argued that the vehicle, a 1996 model, was not equipped with side airbags, and this accident involved a side impact. This argument was made by counsel without the support of sworn testimony or other evidence regarding whether this vehicle had side airbags. Plaintiff further argued that the question was improper, because it was an attempt by the defendant to suggest to the jury that the impact between the vehicles was minor, given that the airbags did not deploy.
Defendant argued that the issue was similar to the presentation of photographs of vehicular damage, which juries are permitted to see in order to evaluate the force of the impact from the accident.
The court acknowledged that whether or not airbags deployed during a motor vehicle accident could be relevant in the appropriate case. The court provided an example of cases where the speed of the impact was in dispute, and there was evidence that the impact should have caused airbags to deploy at a certain speed, as one in which this evidence could be relevant. The court noted that there are typically too many variables for it to be clear whether the airbags’ deployment, or lack thereof, was relevant to an issue in controversy.
The deployment, or non-deployment, of airbags was held to not be relevant in the absence of expert testimony, insofar as to does not, without additional information, tend to prove or disprove an issue in the case. Juries cannot know, absent expert testimony, the amount of force needed to trigger the specific airbag contained in a particular vehicle; or how a particular airbag system functions. The lack of this kind of information would leave a jury to speculate as to why an airbag system may or may not have activated.
Trial court opinions are typically not binding on other courts in New Jersey. However, pursuant to R. 1:36-2, the publication of this opinion by the Supreme Court’s Committee on Publication indicates that the opinion is one determining a new and important question of law. Published trial court opinions may be cited to other courts throughout the State. Judge Marczyk’s decision is likely to be relied upon by plaintiffs in low-impact motor vehicle accident cases throughout New Jersey.