What Do I Do if I Have Suffered an Injury Caused by a Governmental Entity or Public Employee in New Jersey?
Unlike claims against private individuals or entities, the New Jersey Tort Claims Act N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. sets forth the parameters within which an individual or entity may recover for the tortious actions of public entities and public employees. Not only does it outline how a governmental entity or public employee may be sued, but it also provides the time parameters in which a claim may be made and the manner in which such a claim is required to be made pursuant to the Act. It further defines the immunities afforded governmental entities and employees.
For instance, assume you were in an automobile accident involving a police car which struck you from behind and as a result you sustained significant personal injuries. The New Jersey Tort Claims Act allows you to sue that police officer as well as the employing municipality for the police officer’s negligence. However, the Tort Claims Act requires you as the injured person to notify the public entity in the form and manner and within the time parameters as set forth under the Act. The Act provides that in order to pursue a claim that you as the injured party must follow the specific mechanism for filing a claim as is set forth under Chapter 8 of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:8-1 et seq. In particular, N.J.S.A. 59:8-4 sets forth the required contents of the claim. It provides:
A claim shall be presented by the claimant or by a person acting on his behalf and shall include:
- The name and post office address of the claimant;
- The post office address to which the person presenting the claim desires notices to be sent;
- The date, place and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim asserted;
- A general description of the injury, damage or loss incurred so far as it may be known at the time of presentation of the claim;
- The name or names of the public entity, employee or employees causing the injury, damage or loss, if known; and
- The amount claimed as of the date of presentation of the claim, including the estimated amount of any prospective injury, damage or loss, insofar as it may be known at the time of the presentation of the claim, together with the basis of computation of the amount claimed.
59:8-5 requires that the claim shall be signed by the claimant or some person on his behalf.
59:8-7 requires that the claim for damage or injury arising under this Act against the State shall be filed either with (1) the Attorney General or (2) the department or agency involved in the alleged wrongful act or omission. A claim for injury or damages arising under this Act against a local public entity shall be filed with that entity.
In regard to the example set forth above where a police officer caused you to sustain an injury by striking you from behind with his vehicle, that claim would be filed with the local police department and the town or municipality by whom the police officer is employed.
Of utmost importance is the time for the presentation of a claim as outlined in N.J.S.A. 59:8-8. This section of the statute requires that the claim be presented within 90 days of the accrual of the cause of action and if the claimant fails to file the appropriate claim within 90 days, the ability to file suit would be barred absent exceptional circumstances. The statute does provide a claimant with the ability to file a notice of late claim under N.J.S.A. 59:8-9. However, the ability to file a claim beyond the 90 days requires the claimant to establish extraordinary circumstances for his failure to file a timely claim and the Court upon application would have to make the determination as to whether there was a sufficient factual basis to support “extraordinary circumstances.” The ability to file a late notice of claim runs up to one year following the accrual of the cause of action.
In addition to the notice of claim requirements, there is also a requirement that any lawsuit against the public entity and/or public employee arising under the Tort Claims Act be filed no later than two years from the time of the accrual of the claim. Failure to file within this two year limitation serves as an absolute bar.
The Tort Claims Act also sets forth various immunities afforded the government and its employees. If the events giving rise to the injuries falls within one of these immunities, then the government would be immune from any claims relating thereto. These immunities are specifically set forth in 59:4-1 et seq. One example of an immunity is 59:4-5 which states that neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by the failure to provide ordinary traffic signals, signs, markings or other similar devices. In other words, if a municipality decides to place a yield sign at an intersection where it would be more prudent to place a stop sign and an accident were to ensue as a result of the failure to have a stop sign, the governmental entity would be free from liability. Another example would be 59:4-6 which provides immunity for the plan or design of public property, either in its original construction or any improvement thereto, where such plan or design has been approved in advance of the construction or improvement by the Legislature or the governing body of a public entity or some other body or a public employee exercising discretionary authority to give such approval or where such plan or design is prepared in conformity with standards previously so approved.
The Tort Claims Act and the New Jersey Court’s interpretation of the Act over the four decades that it has been in effect is at times confusing and proves to be a very difficult area of the law to properly interpret. It is one that requires the attention of an attorney who has the skill and expertise in handling these types of matters. If you have been injured as a result of a dangerous condition of public property, the action or inactions of a public employee or in an instance that you believe is the responsibility of a public entity and its employees, it is imperative that you contact my firm as soon as possible after the happening of the accident. As indicated above, you have 90 days to file the appropriate Notice of Claim and your failure to do so would serve as a bar unless there were extraordinary circumstances that would excuse you from its untimely filing.
The point should be made that the time allotted to file a claim and possibly other requirements are more stringent than in a non-governmental case.