In a precedential decision, New Jersey’s Appellate Division upheld the common law test for applying the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” in a negligence action. In Pannucci v. Edgewood Park Senior Housing – Phase 1, LLC, A-4735-17T3 (App. Div. Nov. 30, 2020), the Appellate Division was asked to reverse a trial court’s dismissal of a personal injury lawsuit, arising from the plaintiff’s claim that she had been injured while boarding an elevator in her own apartment building.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, finding that there was no proof of negligence as a proximate cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries. On appeal, Plaintiff asked the court to revise New Jersey’s doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, a doctrine which permits a jury to infer that a defendant was negligent in certain circumstances. Res ispa loquitor, which translates to “the thing speaks for itself,” relieves a plaintiff from having to establish proof of the defendant’s negligent conduct when the circumstances of the accident suggest it would not have happened absent the defendant’s negligence. New Jersey requires plaintiffs in personal injury actions to show three things in order to benefit from the res ipsa loquitur doctrine – first, that the accident was one that “ordinarily bespeaks negligence”; second, that the defendant (or defendants) exclusively controlled the thing that caused the injury; and third, that the injury did not result from the plaintiff’s own voluntary act or neglect. McDaid v. Aztec W. Condo. Ass’n, 234 N.J. 130, 142-43 (2018).
Plaintiff resided in an apartment building for seniors, owned and managed by two of the defendants. A third defendant, Thyssenkrupp Elevator Corp., was retained to service the building’s elevators. One morning, plaintiff approached the elevator after walking her twenty-pound Pomeranian dog. As she approached, the elevator doors opened, and a man exited. Plaintiff’s dog ran into the elevator, four feet ahead of her. Plaintiff’s right arm, which was holding the leash, extended into the elevator cab, but not until the doors had already started to close. The doors continued to close, striking her arm and injuring her.
There had never been problems observed by the Plaintiff, or through semiannual state inspections, of the elevator. Defendants also did not observe any prior issues with the elevator, which was serviced regularly – and in fact, inspected just four weeks before the subject accident.
At summary judgment, Plaintiff contended that her claim should be saved by res ipsa loquitur. The court acknowledged that the accident was one which may bespeak negligence ordinarily, and further that at least one defendant had exclusive control of the elevator. However, the court declined to find for plaintiff on the third element, that she was not comparatively negligent, because a jury might reasonably find her negligent for having “such a long leash,” and for forcibly stopping the elevator doors. On appeal, Plaintiff contended that the third requirement of the test should be discarded entirely, and that New Jersey’s abrogation of “contributory negligence” in favor of comparative fault should mean her res ipsa claim should not be doomed based on a demonstration of any negligence.
The Appellate Division, noting that the issue was one of public importance, declined to alter New Jersey’s law on the subject, noting that the Supreme Court had not questioned the doctrine. As such, New Jersey courts will continue to decline to apply res ipsa loquitur in personal injury actions where facts suggest a plaintiff’s comparative fault is partially to blame.
For more information on this case, or on this topic generally, please contact the authors, Joe Gallo and Derrick Grant.