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Murphy v. City of Asbury Park

January 14, 1944

MURPHY
v.
CITY OF ASBURY PARK ET AL.



Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey; Phillip Forman, Judge.

Author: Mclaughlin

Before JONES, GOODRICH, and McLAUGHLIN, Circuit Judges.

McLAUGHLIN, Circuit Judge.

This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff was a passenger in an automobile owned by John J. Bennett and operated by Peter A. Bennett, which collided with one of a series of structures erected on Ocean Avenue, Asbury Park, New Jersey, by that municipality. The accident happened about 6:00 P.M., January 20, 1940, on Ocean Avenue at its intersection with Sixth Avenue in that city. Ocean Avenue runs north and south. It is the most easterly thoroughfare of Asbury Park and is next to and parallels the ocean front. It is 54 feet, seven inches wide. It is a main highway, carrying much of the Asbury Park vehicular traffic and is crossed by pedestrians going to and from the beach. At the time of the accident, there was in existence, a set of standards at intervals along the center of Ocean Avenue for substantially its length, or at least for a number of blocks The standards had bell-shaped concrete bases. The bottom diameter of such base was 4 feet, its height was 3 1/2 feet. From the top of the base, a vertical metal column extended about 10 feet further into the air. At the top of the column there was an electric light fixture. In addition, some of the poles had traffic lights attached to them. The particular standard identified with the collision, did not. It did, however, have an inlaid sign on its base reading "Sixth Avenue," which was the east-west street opposite and deadending into Ocean Avenue. The particular base had painted on it the words "No center parking."

The Bennett automobile had been proceeding north on Ocean Avenue and to avoid hitting a car, Peter Bennett turned out to his left and struck the standard. In the District Court, there was a judgment in favor of the plaintiff and against the driver, Peter Bennett, and the City of Asbury Park. This appeal is taken by the City of Asbury Park. The defendant, Peter Bennett, did not take any appeal.

It is evident that the standard was a part of Asbury Park's lighting and traffic system on Ocean Avenue. The municipality itself installed and maintained that system, including the particular stanchion in question. The fundamental question in the case is whether it was authorized by law. If it was, then, as Judge Biggs, speaking for this Court, said in Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company v. Chiara, 3 Cir., 95 F.2d 663, at page 664: " * * * members of the public, including the appellees, are required to take notice of its presence and situation, and the learned trial judge should have directed a verdict for the appellant as prayed for by it."

It is not clear from the testimony just when the standards were erected. The only one of plaintiff's witnesses who ventured to hazard a date, fixed the time as about 1927. Plaintiff's attorney, in response to the Court's questions, said that from the best proof they had, the standard had been erected approximately fifteen years prior to the trial date which was May 1942 and which would make the construction date approximately 1927. The date of construction is not mentioned in the trial court's change. However, in the opinion on the motion to set aside the verdict, the court, from language in one of the Asbury Park ordinances in evidence inferred that the standards were erected in 1921. In any event, 1921 is the earliest possible date.

In 1917, the New Jersey Legislature passed what is popularly called the "Home Rule Act" (P.L. 1917, Chapter 152, pages 319, 410, N.J.S.A. 40:42-1 et seq.). Paragraph 1, Article XXIV of that Act reads as follows: "1. The governing body of every municipality shall have power by ordinance to cause the streets and public places of such municipality to be lighted, to acquire all necessary lands and real estate for that purpose by purchase, gift or condemnation, and to erect thereon all necessary buildings and to equip the same with all necessary machinery and equipment, and to erect and maintain on or under said streets and public places all necessary poles, conduits, wires, fixtures and equipment, and to operate such lighting system at public expense." N.J.S.A. 40:67-13.

The law as it reads was in effect in 1921. It will be noted that a municipality was directed to proceed by ordinance. In 1921, Asbury Park enacted its ordinance No. 335 which ordained "that the necessary drains and sewers for standard lamps necessary in connection with the improvements to Ocean Avenue be installed and completed, and that the paving of Ocean Avenue Boulevard be completed * * * ". In the same ordinance, the cost "for the extension and completion of the sewers and drains and bases for lamp standards in Ocean Avenue and for the completion of the paving of said Ocean Avenue" was estimated at $52,000.

In 1927 Asbury Park passed Ordinance No. 454 which referred to the previous Ordinance No. 335, saying that the work called for by the latter had been completed and authorizing a bond issue to pay for same.

In Paragraph 5(a) of Ordinance No. 454 appeared the following sentence in parenthesis: "(The original average periods of usefulness of said improvements being twenty years, six years of the period of said usefulness having already expired and leaving remaining fourteen years.)" This referred to all of the improvements mentioned in the ordinance, including "the necessary drains and sewers for standard lamps necessary in connection with the improvements to Ocean Avenue." It is from the above that the trial court assumed that the standard, with which we are concerned, was erected in 1921.

In 1923 a supplement to the 1917 Home Rule Act was enacted, P.L. 1923, Chapter 92, page 178, N.J.S.A. 40:67-16. That reads: "1. The governing body of every municipality shall have the power to establish safety zones, to erect, construct and maintain platforms, commonly called 'safety isles'; to erect, construct, maintain and operate standards, commonly called 'silent policemen,' beacon lights, guide posts or other structures, which in its judgment may be necessary for the safety and convenience of persons and vehicles using the streets in said municipality."

As is seen, the 1923 statute contained no restrictions on municipalities as to the necessity of proceeding by ordinance. This statute was more concerned with traffic regulation and control than with lighting, which latter had been the primary purpose of the 1917 Act.

A photograph of the stanchion, one of the exhibits in the case, was before this court on the argument of this appeal. It gives a general idea of the Ocean Avenue light and traffic setup. From it, and the other facts in the case, it is clear that the particular stanchion is authorized under both the 1917 and the 1923 statutes. It is in reality an ornamental pole or fixture set in a wide base and serving the double purpose of street lighting and traffic assistance. The appellant argues at length that the structure was not specifically authorized by either law. It is true that the Legislature did not in either Act, see fit to detail exact dimensions of "light poles" or of "standards, commonly called silent policemen, beacon lights, guide posts or other structures, which in its (the municipality) judgment may be necessary for the safety and convenience of persons and vehicles using the streets in said municipality." However, having in mind that both Acts were general laws, applying to every municipality in New Jersey and to an endless variety of local conditions, it is difficult to conceive how either law could be more specific and at the same time enable the municipalities of the State to function for practical purposes under them, in the ...


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