In this personal injury case arising from a car accident, the driver apparently took a turn on a wet road at about 35 – 40 mph and hit a dumpster, of the type seen at right. The accident occurred in a “dimly lit” area that was “in a part of the street that cars would normally drive on.” While there was little doubt the driver was negligent, issues arose in this suit by a passenger as to the company that placed the dumpster:
- Was the dumpster in the roadway?
- Is there any liability due to the dumpster not having reflectors?
A divided panel of the Appellate Division, First Department held in Smalls v. AJI Industries that summary judgment should have been granted to the dumpster owner. In doing so, they seemed to be resolving issues of fact that properly belong to a jury. The dissent from Justice Tom has, in my opinion, the more persuasive argument:
Resolving several issues of fact as a matter of law, the majority concludes that because the driver was negligent in the operation of the motor vehicle, other defendants cannot be held accountable regardless of the location and condition of the dumpster. Because the record contains evidence that the dumpster was located “in a part of the street that cars would normally drive on,” and was unseen until virtually the moment of impact, a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that the owners of the refuse container were negligent in placing it in an unsafe location and failing to equip it with reflective tape or other markings to render it discernable to motorists. Thus, the question of defendants’ relative culpability in contributing to plaintiff’s injuries is properly reserved for trial.
Questions of fact need to be left for juries. Here, simply because one defendant had clear liability (speeding, losing control of his car), the court has taken the issue of liability away from someone else who may also share in the fault.