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Appellate Division ruling holds that juries, not judges, are to decide public entity’s tort liability

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held in Henebema v. South Jersey Transportation Authority, A-3723-10 that when establishing tort liability a jury, not a judge, should be the one to decide whether a public entity’s acts are ministerial or discretionary in nature. This crucial distinction determines whether the public entity is subject to the ordinary-negligence standard for tort liability or the “palpably unreasonable standard,” the latter of which is typically harder for a plaintiff to satisfy.

The Plaintiff in the case was severely injured in a serious car accident during a snowy night on the Atlantic City Expressway. As the roads were especially treacherous, there were numerous accidents that happened on the Expressway that night. The plethora of accidents stretched the police department’s resources thin, resulting in drastic delays in response time which allegedly resulted in the exacerbation of Plaintiff’s injuries. The sudden increase in emergencies caused the police department to spend crucial response time deciding how to prioritize each accident, and also raised time-consuming questions regarding the proper protocol in requesting and accepting assistance from other departments.

The appeals court found that the trial erred by usurping the jury’s function and settling the fact-laden dispute on its own. The Court held that “when the evidence establishes a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the alleged failures of a public entity were the result of decision-making as to how to use its resources, or instead involved ministerial acts mandated by law or practice, then that fact issue must be submitted to the jury.” This ruling ought to ensure that plaintiffs in future cases will be able to satisfy the ordinary-negligence standard set by the court, paving a path for more favorable rulings on behalf of plaintiffs in such tort liability cases.

At Lieberman & Blecher, our attorneys handle many cases involving municipalities and other public entities. Our governmental teams represent municipalities and and other local government entities in environmental, land use and real state redevelopment matters. Our toxic tort team represents clients who may sometimes have claims against entities that may assert governmental tort immunity.  The Henebema decision is an important milestone for plaintiffs and defendants to take note of as they pursue and defend actions involving municipalities and other government entities.

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