In Segal v. County of Hudson, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No.: A-5005-11 (App. Div. July 19, 2013), certif. denied, 217 N.J. 284 (2014), a Jersey City Public Works employee was eating lunch at the end of Duncan Avenue by the Hackensack River when he discovered a vehicle upside-down, floating in the river. A dive team found the corpse of Rabbi Segal in the driver’s seat. The car was found thirty feet away from the shore and roughly two-hundred and fifty feet south of where Duncan Avenue ends.
Duncan Avenue is a city-owned roadway, which runs in an east-west direction, perpendicular to the Hackensack River. On the northbound side is a property owned by Dee-Jay, one of the defendants. There is no curb, barrier, or any other delineation between the asphalt of the roadway and the asphalt of Dee-Jay’s lot. It was undisputed that the car entered the Hackensack River from Duncan Avenue, where the road meets the river. The theory was Rabbi Segal’s vehicle collided with the guardrail, traveled across Dee-Jay’s property, and fell into the river.
The court, when addressing one of the many issues in the case found Dee-Jay owed no legal duty to the decedent, as the events that occurred were not readily foreseeable to Dee-Jay. Whether a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid risk of a specific harm to somebody else exists, it is generally considered a matter of law to be decided by a court. “The inquiry involves a weighing of the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest in the proposed solution.” Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538, 544 (1984). In order to find a party liable, and pay damages, in a wrongful death and survivorship action, there must be an established duty the defendant owed the plaintiff. There can be no recovery in negligence action if the actor violated no duty owed to the injured party.
Arguably, the most significant part of a negligence claim is whether the defendant could reasonably foresee the bad thing happening to the plaintiff (of which the defendant should have exercised the proper care to prevent). The court found in this case, Dee-Jay did not owe a duty of care to the decedent due to there being no foreseeability for the vehicle “reaching the terminus of the road, strik[ing] the protective guardrail, and proceed[ing] onto Dee-Jay’s adjacent property before crossing over the bulkhead and plunging into the river.” Foreseeability serves as a critical factor when a court is determining whether a defendant owes a duty to the plaintiff. If something the defendant does or something the defendant lets happen is reasonably (or readily) foreseeable and if the plaintiff was in “the range of harm” of the defendant, then the plaintiff may have a case against the defendant. “Negligence is tested by whether the reasonably prudent person at the time and place should recognize and foresee an unreasonable risk or likelihood of harm or danger to others. Kelly, 96 N.J. at 543. It is helpful to look at ordinary negligence cases (not products liability or medical malpractice) from a common sense point of view and less from a theoretical one.
Imposing a duty additionally involves the court to consider fairness and policy. The relationship of the parties is central to this. If the defendant invited a social guest or a business guest, then this is a relationship the court is ready to recognize, but a party’s spastic driving and subsequent falling into the Hackensack River while going across the defendant’s property is not.