Renz v. Penn Cent. Corp.

Decision Date28 September 1981
Citation435 A.2d 540,87 N.J. 437
PartiesFrederick RENZ and Madeline Renz, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. PENN CENTRAL CORPORATION, successors in interest to Robert W. Blanchette, Richard C. Bond, and John H. MacArthur, Trustees of the Property of Penn Central Transportation Corporation, Defendant-Respondent, and Consolidated Rail Corporation, a Pennsylvania corporation, John Doe, and Richard Doe, unknown employees of the aforesaid defendants, jointly, severally, and in the alternative, Defendants.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Steven K. Kudatzky, Haddonfield, for plaintiffs-appellants (Tomar, Parks, Seliger, Simonoff & Adourian, Haddonfield, attorneys; Ronald A. Graziano, Haddonfield, of counsel).

William B. Scatchard, Jr., Moorestown, for defendant-respondent (Capehart & Scatchard, Moorestown, attorneys).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


In this case the plaintiff, Frederick Renz, Jr., then age 15, and four companions were walking along Penn Central Railroad tracks, on April 4, 1975, when Renz attempted to cross between the cars of a stationary train by climbing over the coupling. The train moved as Renz was engaged in this activity and he fell beneath the wheels of the train resulting ultimately in the loss of one leg and a fracture of the other.

Plaintiff by his guardian ad litem instituted an action to recover damages for negligence from the railroad and some of its employees. The railroad raised the railroad immunity act, N.J.S.A. 48:12-152, as a defense. Plaintiffs moved to strike this defense on the theory that the Comparative Negligence Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1, -5.2, either superseded or modified the railroad immunity act so that comparative fault principles were now applicable in cases like this.

In the Law Division, the plaintiffs' motion was denied. The trial judge reasoned that the railroad immunity act completely exonerates a railroad from liability by absolving it of any duty to trespassers. Because "(n)egligence depends upon an antecedent duty," the court reasoned, contributory negligence, and therefore comparative negligence, could play no part in any action against a railroad.

Following the denial of the motion to strike, plaintiffs moved successfully for leave to appeal the interlocutory determination. This Court then granted direct certification.


This appeal, as well as the companion case of Eden v. Conrail, --- N.J. ---, 435 A.2d 556 (1981), decided today, raise the same important question of whether the railroad immunity act, N.J.S.A. 48:12-152, which bars recovery against a railroad for injuries sustained by unauthorized persons engaged in particular activities on railroad property, continues to insulate a railroad from tort liability in light of fundamental changes in our law involving the doctrines of contributory and comparative negligence. In a recent case, Potter v. Finch & Sons, 76 N.J. 499, 388 A.2d 614 (1978), this issue was raised but was not considered because the accident there occurred prior to current statutory changes in our tort laws relating to these doctrines. The consideration and resolution of this issue in this case, however, is timely and cannot be avoided.

The railroad immunity act provides:

It shall not be lawful for any person other than those connected with or employed upon the railroad to walk along the tracks of any railroad except when the same shall be laid upon a public highway. Any person injured by an engine or car while walking, standing or playing on a railroad or by jumping on or off a car while in motion shall be deemed to have contributed to the injury sustained and shall not recover therefor any damages from the company owning or operating the railroad. This section shall not apply to the crossing of a railroad by a person at any lawful public or private crossing. (emphasis added)

The statute was first substantively enacted in 1869, L. 1869, c. 285. At that time, the enactment consisted only of the second and third sentences of the statute as it now appears. The first sentence was added in 1903, L. 1903, c. 257, § 55, and except for minor grammatical changes the statute has remained intact since that date.

We note at the outset in construing this enactment that statutory language should be given its ordinary meaning absent specific intent to the contrary. Levin v. Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, 82 N.J. 174, 182, 411 A.2d 704 (1980); Abbotts Dairies v. Armstrong, 14 N.J. 319, 325, 102 A.2d 372 (1954). Thus, we must first look at the evident wording of the statute to ascertain its plain meaning and intent.

The statute by its unambiguous language provides that any person hurt as a result of walking, standing or playing on or along a railroad or its tracks or jumping on or off a moving railroad car is guilty of contributory negligence. Such a person is deemed to have "contributed to the injury sustained" and the railroad shall not be liable to such person for any personal injuries attributable to that conduct. The clear purport of this language and the gist of its intended meaning is that certain conduct constitutes contributory negligence.

In terms of the applicability of this statute and its viability today, it is important to understand this central theme. That this is the clear meaning of the statute is illuminated by historical reference to the sequential passage of the present law. The statute, as noted, was first enacted in 1869. At that time it referred solely to conduct contributing to injury contributory negligence and to the liability of a railroad with respect to certain persons engaged in such conduct. The statute as a matter of law equated certain conduct with contributory negligence which it posited as an absolute affirmative defense barring recovery against a railroad. The statute made no reference to the status of persons covered by its terms and did not explicitly refer to the duty of care owed by a railroad as a landowner or common carrier, nor did it make any reference to trespass or similar doctrines involving landowner duties to persons upon its property.

The later addition of the first sentence of the present statute did not, in any sense, change the essential terms, meaning or import of the statutory immunity. Rather it explicitly made walking along railroad tracks unlawful, clearly intending that this activity is encompassed within the liability provisions of the statute, as well as providing the railroad with additional sanctions against a person engaged in such conduct. See, e. g., Potter v. Finch & Sons, supra, (statute applied to an eleven-year-old boy walking on defendant's railroad tracks). Cf. Furey v. N.Y.C. & H.R.R.R. Co., 67 N.J.L. 270, 51 A. 505 (E. & A. 1902) (1869 statute, just prior to the 1903 addition, did not apply to a person walking across railroad tracks, rather than on them, at a place other than a public crossing). Thus the statute by its straightforward terms provides that persons falling within its scope may not recover damages from a railroad because of the incorporated common law theory of contributory negligence.

The major obstacle to this construction of the railroad immunity act is the judicial interpretation of that statute in Egan v. Erie R. Co., 29 N.J. 243, 148 A.2d 830 (1959). That Court perceived the provisions of the railroad immunity statute as hinged upon the common law theory of trespass, in effect absolving the railroad of a duty of care to persons engaged in the activities enumerated in the statute. In applying the statute under this interpretation to the facts before it, the Egan Court examined New Jersey's common law doctrine of trespass "at the time of the adoption of the statute and for many years thereafter." 29 N.J. at 250, 148 A.2d 830. The Court, however, focused upon New Jersey jurisprudence in this area as of 1903, the date that the statute was first enacted as a whole. It concluded that under the law of this State, as then codified in the statutory enactment, "a landowner owed no duty to a trespasser other than to refrain from inflicting injury upon him through willful and wanton conduct." Id. at 250-251, 148 A.2d 830.

Having determined that the statutory enactment codified the common law rule "providing immunity from liability" to a trespasser, id. at 251, 148 A.2d 830, the Court then reviewed the evolution of common law trespass principles, which had led in more recent times to a "more flexible doctrine," id. at 252-253, 148 A.2d 830. It concluded, nonetheless, that the Legislature did not intend that the trespass doctrine, as incorporated in the statute in 1903, be altered or modified so as to be fully coincident with what it viewed to be the relevant decisional law at the time of its decision. 1 In view of this analysis by the Egan court, then, we cannot conclude with sureness that the legal theory underpinning the statutory enactment was one of contributory negligence rather than trespass based solely upon what appears to be the clear import of the language of the statute. However, because the correct legal theory of the statute is crucial to our analysis of its terms at this time, we must look further to ascertain whether the legislative intent indeed indicates that the clear words of the statute that bespeak contributory negligence are to be disregarded and that trespass is to be deemed the underlying legal theory of the immunity act. In doing so, we agree with the general methodology of the Egan Court that such an inquiry must commence with an evaluation of "the common law of New Jersey ... (a)t the time of the adoption of the statute." 29 N.J. at 250, 148 A.2d 830. However, in our view, that means a journey back to 1869 and before, since the operative liability provision of the statute was enacted substantially in its current form at that date rather than 1903 when the additional element was added. Thus, the question to be answered is whether the Legislature intended its enactment...

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