The New Jersey Supreme Court has ended a civil lawsuit that alleged in part that overgrown bushes caused a 2008 fatal collision in Willingboro between a car and a motorcycle.
Thursday's ruling reinstated a lower court decision that found fault with an expert opinion that the bushes blocked the driver's view, causing the collision that killed motorcyclist Alvin J. Townsend Jr., 28, of East Windsor, N.J.
"No facts in the record support plaintiffs' contention that the shrubbery on the property was a proximate cause of the fatal collision," the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision.
Witness testimony conflicted with the expert's opinion, and there was not adequate evidence to support the expert's conclusions, the court ruled.
Townsend's family sued the car's driver, Noah Pierre, the municipality, Burlington County, the owner of the property where the bushes grew, and the dental office that rented office space there.
Pierre settled with the family. Claims against the county and township were dismissed. Claims against the property owner and dental office were dismissed as well, but reinstated by a panel of appellate judges, who ruled a jury should decide whether to consider the expert's opinion.
In 2008, Pierre stopped on Garfield Drive to make a left onto Levitt Parkway, according to court records. Her vision was obscured at the stop sign by the bushes. She inched forward to get a clear view before she turned, she testified in a deposition for the civil lawsuit.
Pierre and a passenger in her car both said they could see clearly down the road before turning. Pierre said she did not see the motorcycle, according to the court records. Another driver, in the right lane next to Pierre's car, testified she saw the cyclist and did not pull out.
Attorneys for Townsend's family provided a report from an engineering liability expert, Nicholas Bellizzi, who said the bushes exceeded height restrictions and violated required distances at intersection, and concluded they caused the accident.
A judge concluded Bellizzi's opinion lacked factual support and barred him from testifying, and dismissed the case.
"The bottom line here is - even if you were to say you just discount or disbelieve [Pierre], what is left with respect to the bushes? Where are the facts that there was an obstruction? They're just not here," the judge determined.
The appellate court overturned that decision, noting that with proper instruction, a jury could properly evaluate expert testimony.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court decided otherwise.
The attorney for the Townsend family did not return calls seeking comment.
Attorney Michael Dolich, who made arguments to the Supreme Court for the property owner and dental office, said the opinion was important in restricting civil cases that lack evidence.
"It raised an issue primarily of how much latitude an expert could have when there are no facts to support the opinion," Dolich said.