Named and Unidentified Defendants can Share Fault in Personal Injury Cases, NJ Supreme Court Rules
After hearing a motor vehicle accident case involving several defendants, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that both named and unidentified defendants can be apportioned fault under New Jersey’s comparative negligence laws.
What is Comparative Negligence?
In New Jersey, the Comparative Negligence Act (CNA) allows juries in certain personal injury cases to determine the degree of fault held by each party involved. For example, in a car accident case, comparative negligence refers to the extent to which each individual involved contributed to the cause of the accident. The degree of fault is expressed as a percentage of the whole. Thus, one party may hold a greater portion of fault than another.
The comparative negligence apportionment, or how it is divided, is extremely significant, as it determines the amount that the plaintiff can ultimately recover in damages. In other words, if a plaintiff suffers injuries resulting from a motor vehicle crash, the compensation they are awarded will be limited by their degree of fault. Notably, when a plaintiff files a lawsuit against multiple parties, the jury must evaluate each party’s degree of fault in contributing to the event that led to the plaintiff’s injuries. When deciding damages, the jury will then divide the total recovery among the defendants based on their liability under comparative negligence.
It is important to note that in New Jersey, a plaintiff is entitled to file a lawsuit against an individual or organization as “John Doe” if the plaintiff has a cause of action against the defendant, even if the plaintiff doesn’t know the defendant’s identity. For example, a car accident victim can use uninsured motor benefits to recover damages caused by an unidentified driver.
Determining Liability when a Party is Unidentified
In the recent base brought before the NJ Supreme Court, three were parties involved in a car accident in Florence Township, New Jersey. Although two of the drivers were identified, one of whom was the plaintiff, the third driver remained unknown, referred to solely as “John Doe.” After suffering serious injuries in the motor vehicle accident, the plaintiff decided against settling a claim for uninsured motorist benefits with his insurance company. Instead, he filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant and John Doe.
Following the trial in this case, the jury was instructed to apportion fault between the named defendant and John Doe. They found the named defendant only 3 percent negligent, assigning 97 percent negligence to the “phantom” defendant – John Doe. The plaintiff was awarded $107,890 in damages. He appealed the verdict, which was subsequently affirmed by an Appellate Court.
Degree of Fault in NJ Car Accident Cases
Upon review by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the court determined that the original apportionment of fault in this case was, in fact, correct under the law. In its decision, the court noted that both the plaintiff and the defendant confirmed John Doe’s contribution to the cause of the accident. They went on to say that New Jersey’s Comparative Negligence Act does not discriminate between named and unnamed parties when determining degree of fault for a plaintiff’s injuries.
The purpose of the State’s comparative negligence law is to determine the degree of responsibility held by each party in a personal injury case, and to require each party to pay for their portion of liability. Now, the court set a precedent for future car accident lawsuits, allowing known but unidentified drivers who have some degree of fault in an accident to be apportioned fault, even if the plaintiff cannot reasonably expect to recover damages from these “phantom” parties.
I was injured in a Car Accident in New Jersey. What can I do?
If you or someone you love has suffered injuries in a motor vehicle accident in New Jersey, it is important to seek knowledgeable legal counsel from an attorney who remains at the forefront of current case law in this ever-evolving area. If another driver or drivers were partially at fault for your car accident, you may be entitled to pursue damages through a personal injury lawsuit. Fronzuto Law Group is a civil litigation firm focused entirely on personal injury, medical malpractice, and product liability matters in New Jersey. Since our firm’s founding, we have assisted countless clients with achieving the compensation they deserve. To speak with an experienced New Jersey personal injury attorney about your case, contact us today at 973-435-4551 or fill out our online form to arrange your free case evaluation.
For additional information regarding this matter, access the following article: New Jersey Supreme Court Says Jury Can Apportion Fault Between Actual And Phantom Defendants