New Jersey Appellate Court Finds Lack of Specificity in Causation of Negligence Claim Does Not Bar Suit

A New Jersey Appellate Court ruled that a plaintiff’s lack of specificity as to what caused her bicycle accident did not support the trial court’s finding that the plaintiff presented no evidence of causation to support her negligence claim. In Walter v. California Avenue Ventures LLC, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendants and found that the record established a triable issue of fact on whether the condition of the sidewalk caused plaintiff’s fall and subsequent injuries.

In Walter, plaintiff was injured while riding her bike when she hit an object on the sidewalk and fell over the handlebars. At her deposition, plaintiff testified that the object she hit was really hard and may have been a “metal thing.” She further testified that she “fell between two things” and that the accident happened very quickly. Plaintiff admitted that she did not know exactly what caused her bike to lose control.Plaintiff also submitted an affidavit after her deposition to clarify her testimony, which stated that she did not know the mechanics of what caused her to fall, but that the front tire of the bike came in contact with a “metal cover.”

Subsequently, the plaintiff retained an engineer to inspect the site of the accident. The engineer observed two obstructions on the sidewalk—an abandoned water service box and an abandoned sewer cleanout box. The engineer noted that the metal boxes created depressions and protrusions on the sidewalk and concluded that the two utility boxes were clearly the cause of plaintiff’s accident.

Defendants argued that plaintiff failed to present any evidence that the boxes were the cause of her fall because she did not testify with specificity as to how the accident happened. Defendants further argued that plaintiff could not proceed to trial unless she could say what caused her to fall, either before she noticed it or after.

The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The court found that plaintiff had no idea of the cause of the accident and that the engineer’s finding was conclusory in that he simply identified an alleged dangerous condition in the area of plaintiff’s fall and assumed the condition was the cause.

In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Court held that the record sufficiently established a triable issue of fact as to whether the two obstructions on the sidewalk caused plaintiff’s fall. The Court noted that the plaintiff’s testimony that she hit a hard, possibly metal, object and fell between two things, in conjunction with her expert’s findings, could lead a reasonable factfinder to determine that the plaintiff ran over one of the two boxes. Citing New Jersey case law, the Court found that while plaintiff has the burden of proving causation, she does not have to establish it by direct and indisputable evidence, but can rest on legitimate inference, as long as “the proof will justify a reasonable and logical inference as distinguished from mere speculation.” In this case, plaintiff satisfied this burden.