In a set of facts worthy of a law school exam, N.J. Superior Court Judge Mary Costello, J.S.C., granted summary judgment in favor of an HKMP client, finding that a permissive user of a vehicle was not responsible for a fire that occurred after a motor vehicle accident.
Plaintiff was a real estate flipper remodeling a house. He called his unemployed brother-in-law, HKMP's client, to ask him to make a lunch run. The brother-in-law indicated that he did not have a car. Plaintiff offered his van for the trip. HKMP's client, who lived two blocks away walked over with his son, took the keys and left for a nearby restaurant.
While driving, the brother-in-law lost control of the van and collided with a parked car. Both he and the son were injured and taken to a local hospital by ambulance. Hearing the commotion, plaintiff walked down and saw his brother-in-law and nephew being loaded in the ambulance. Plaintiff approached the police and identified himself as the owner of the vehicle. After the police and fire department released the scene and vehicle, plaintiff had a tow truck take the vehicle back to his rental property. No sooner did the tow truck unhook the van than it burst into flames. The fire spread to the adjacent house and caused significant damage.
Plaintiff sued his brother-in-law alleging that the automobile accident was the proximate cause of the house fire. In moving for summary judgment, HKMP partner Paul Daly acknowledged that defendant was at fault for the automobile accident. However, Daly argued that defendant's duty of care for the vehicle ended when the vehicle was released back to plaintiff's custody. As defendant was in an ambulance, on his way to a hospital, when plaintiff determined where to store the vehicle, fundamental notions of fairness would prevent defendant from being responsible for an incident that occurred after the vehicle was removed from the scene of the accident.
Judge Costello accepted the defense argument and dismissed the claim on a motion for summary judgment.