Immune Public Entities may still be allocated 'fault'

In the case of Bolz v. Bolz, a published opinion relapsed in May 2008, the Appellate Division examined the combined effect of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3; the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law (JTCL), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-1 to -5; and the Comparative Negligence Act (CNA), N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.17, when there is a collision between a private automobile and an automobile that is owned by a public entity and driven by a public employee. It was held that despite the fact that a public entity is not liable to pay damages unless plaintiff sustained a permanent injury as defined in the TCA, both drivers are deemed “tortfeasors” if they are found to have been negligent and their negligence was a proximate cause of the accident.

Therefore, allocation or apportionment of each driver’s negligence or fault must be assessed, even if there is a possibility that the public entity may not be liable for damages. Put a different way, although no damages can be awarded against a public entity or employee for pain and suffering if the injuries caused by an accident do not meet the threshold set by the TCA, the public employee is, nonetheless, a tortfeasor pursuant to JTCL and the CNA and this affects the judgment against the private tortfeasor.

Homeowners not liable for injuries to independent contractors

In Whitten v. Sybron Chemicals, Inc., the defendant Sybron hired the plaintiff’s employer to perform maintenance on chemical manufacturing tanks. The plaintiff, a foreman, was injured in a fall from a ladder while repairing a piece of machinery inside one of defendant’s sludge tanks. He claimed the fall was caused by sludge the defendant’s employees failed to clean. However, he admitted he knew of the slippery condition. The court held that since the plaintiff worked for an independent contractor, and since the presence of the sludge was a known and visible hazard that was incidental to the very work the plaintiff was to perform, the defendant had no duty to ensure the plaintiff’s safety. This holding falls in step with a line of New Jersey case law that abrogates the general rule that landowners have a nondelegable duty to ensure the safety of all who enter onto the premises. It thus becomes important upon receiving notice of an accident to thoroughly investigate precisely how the injury occurred and under what circumstances.

Negligent inflection of emotional distress not subject to 'verbal threshold'

In a decision released June 10, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, fashioned on the liability set out in Portee v. Jaffee, is independent of the requirements imposed by the Automobile Insurance Cost Recovery Act’s verbal threshold. The Court in Jablonowska v. Suther, determined that the New Jersey Legislature provided no indication in drafting AICRA that it intended to superimpose the permanent injury requirement on Portee claims that happen to involve the use of a motor vehicle. Accordingly, when asserting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress in motor vehicle cases, plaintiffs will not have to submit objective medical evidence of a permanent psychological injury. Nor will they have to file a certification of permanency from a physician.

Bill to cap damages pending

On June 11, 2008, the Assembly Judiciary Committee took up a bill that Deputy Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) has been pushing for three legislative sessions to cap punitive damage awards in cases where several defendants are determined to share responsibility for a harm.

In such cases, as soon as one defendant reaches a punitive-damages settlement with the plaintiff, that agreed-upon figure will be used to calculate a ceiling on the punitive damages the other defendants may be assessed. For example, should a defendant judged 20 percent liable for a harm agree to pay the plaintiff $100,000 in punitive damages, then the maximum punitive damages the plaintiff could receive would be $500,000, and no defendant would be liable for more than the share of that $500,000 corresponding to his or her comparative liability.

TMWB is monitoring the progress of this important piece of legislation.

Auto carrier must compensate man who slippe don ice and struck head on jack

In Penn National v. Costa, decided April 29, 2008, the Appellate Division reversed the Law Division’s denial of the motion for summary judgment by the defendant/third-party plaintiff homeowner’s insurer and remanded for the entry of judgment for the homeowner’s insurer and against the plaintiff automobile insurer in a coverage action for injuries sustained by the third-party defendant when he slipped on ice and hit his head on the vertical post of the jack being used to replace a tire on his employer’s pickup truck in the employer’s driveway. Because the injuries arose out of the maintenance of an automobile, which fell under an exclusion in the homeowner’s insurance policy, the court held that the auto carrier was required to defend and indemnify the vehicle owner.
This is a published opinion and will constitute binding precedent going forward. It is noteworthy, insofar as the court uncharacteristically enforced a policy exclusion. However, this was most likely due to the fact that alternate coverage was in place.

Defending Employers