When Plaintiff purchased his new van from Ford, he agreed to send the vehicle to a Ford subcontractor in order to install a custom interior and entertainment equipment. The equipment combusted into flames.
In CURE v. Sherrod Vans, Inc., Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No.: A-6368-11T3, plaintiff, Karlin Johnson (“Johnson”) purchased his 2006 Econoline Ford van from Hillside Ford, an authorized dealer of the Ford Motor Company. Hillside Ford sent the van to an authorized Ford subcontractor, Sherrod Vans, Inc. (“Sherrod”) where the requested merchandise was installed. After receipt of the van, Johnson brought it to Route 1 Auto Sound, Inc. (“Auto Sound”) to install a number of equipment including “a combination radio/DVD player, fog lights, and a backup camera.” Three years later, the van was entirely destroyed resulting from a spontaneous fire that occurred while Johnson was driving the van when equipment burst into flames. Johnson sued both Sherrod Vans, Inc. (“Sherrod”) and Auto Sound, claiming that they may have been “either jointly or severely liable for the cause of the fire.”
Auto Sound was a plaintiff and a co-defendant in this litigation and moved for summary judgment against Sherrod. “Because of the fire was an issue beyond the ken [knowledge] of a lay factfinder, plaintiff submitted a report prepared by an expert who opined that the fire was caused by [Sherrod].” To fight against the plaintiff’s summary judgment, the defense must file a challenge to it providing a contrary expert opinion. Sherrod never challenged the validity of the claims using expert testimony proffering evidence to the contrary; therefore, the trial court held that the summary judgment must be granted. The appellate court reviewing the summary judgment motion in the light most favorable to the defense affirmed the lower court’s holding. As a consequence, Johnson and Auto Sound, were found to be entitled to summary judgment and were awarded the remedies asked – for Johnson this was money damages.
Sherrod argued the case was not ripe for summary judgment due to “a number of material factual issues in dispute.” Sherrod cited quotes from the deposition of a lay representative of Auto Sound where he conceded “he never made any attempt to determine whether the installations that his company made were properly connected to ‘the Ford fuse box.” There was a resulting question which should be determined by a jury, the defense argued, because it had to be figured out whether the plaintiff’s expert “traced all of the relevant aftermarket wires” identified as the possible start of the combustion.
The Appellate Court found the question of how the fire was caused must be technical in nature because no one was even alleged to have tampered with the wires that would lead a rational lay person to figure out how the fire was ignited. The New Jersey Rules of Evidence are applied to matters within the jurisdiction of the State. In this case, they are applicable because the dispute of how the fire started requires experts that have “specialized knowledge, training, or experience to investigate and opine as to the cause of the fire.” In short, jurors of common judgment and experience would not be predictably able to make an informed opinion and decide the dispute – whether the defendant was reasonable in his behavior. See State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178 (1984). See also Butler v. Acme Markets, Inc., 89 N.J. 270 (1982).
Interestingly, Sherrod did not just fail to retain an expert and have him provide relevant testimony, but did not even depose the plaintiff’s expert for possible inconsistencies in his reasoning or failures to consider other information according to the Superior Court. “As a matter of strategy or by oversight, [Sherrod] left this crucial part of plaintiff’s case unchallenged. It must now live with the consequences of that decision.”
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