Plain error occurs in a res ipsa case when the omission of the res ipsa loquitur charge is linked with a charge that forecloses the jury from drawing the permissible inference of negligence.
Defendant driver sought review of a judgment of the Superior Court, Appellate Division (New Jersey), which reversed a jury determination that defendant was not negligent in a wrongful death action arising out of a one-car accident, even though she pleaded guilty to careless driving. The trial court generally charged the law of negligence, stated that the mere occurrence of an accident did not give rise to an inference of negligence, and explained variously that a jury finding of a violation of N.J. Stat. Ann § 39:4-97 was both evidence of negligence and negligence itself. Plaintiff's counsel did not request a res ipsa loquitur charge. Hence, the court did not charge that if the jury found that defendant had been driving and had not been forced off the road by the phantom car, it might draw an inference of negligence from the circumstances. The jury found that defendant had been driving, but that she had not been negligent.
Did the trial court's failure to charge res ipsa loquitur constitute plain error?
The court held that the law division court committed plain error in failing to deliver a res ipsa loquitur charge, even though it had not been requested, because if the jury found defendant had been the driver, then it could have inferred from the happening of the one-car accident that defendant had been negligent. Furthermore, if the jury found that defendant violated the careless driving statute, that finding constituted a finding that defendant had also been negligent because the statute incorporated the common law standard of care. Additionally, the court held that defendant's guilty plea was properly admitted into evidence. Finally, the court held that the possibility of use of the guilty plea in a subsequent civil suit did not entitle defendant to appointment of counsel on the careless driving charge, nor did it require exclusion of the plea from use as evidence in the civil case. Accordingly, the judgment was affirmed.