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DOT Contractor Entitled to Tort Claims Act Immunity as Defense in Personal Injury Action

Plaintiff Robert Koehler was injured while driving near an overpass on Route 3 in Rutherford, New Jersey when the boom of a bucket truck, which was in tow, struck the overpass, flew off, hit the roof of Plaintiff’s vehicle and entered the sunroof, causing his injury. The overpass was located in a construction zone. The issue in Koehler v. Smith, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1855 (App. Div. Oct. 1, 2020) was whether the DOT’s general contractor, defendant Creamer Sanzari, was entitled to Tort Claims Act immunity for this accident.

The overpass was not marked with a low clearance sign before the accident and the plaintiff claimed that the defendant general contractor (“GC”) should be liable for his accident when the truck hit the overpass. The defendant, however, claimed that it was entitled to Tort Claims Act traffic sign immunity and design plan immunity.

On the trial court level, the defendant GC filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. While the trial court judge concluded that the defendant was not entitled to design plan immunity, he held that the defendant was entitled to traffic sign immunity and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Upon appeal, the Appellate Division noted that the plaintiff’s expert admitted in deposition testimony that it was the design engineer’s responsibility to ascertain that the project’s plans and specifications were correct and that there was an issue whether the contractor was authorized to affix a low clearance sign to the bridge and that the requisite signs should have been addressed before the project began. The Court also stated that “[t]here was no dispute that the traffic control patterns were designed by the DOT and its engineers, and defendant carried out those patterns according to the plans and specifications.”

The contract setting forth the duties of traffic control as to the GC did not relate to permanent conditions such as the overhead height at issue and the lack of signage. The overhead height was not being altered as part of this project. The milling and paving being performed by the defendant underneath the bridge would not have changed the clearance.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment. The Court found that the defendant GC had no duty to affix signage at this overpass or to address the traffic flow at this location. Thus, the GC was entitled to summary judgment regardless of whether it enjoyed traffic sign immunity under the Tort Claims Act.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that this situation was an “emergency” and found inapplicable the case law in which “a public entity may be held liable for its failure to provide emergency signals when the dangerous condition is temporary.” The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that “the Ridge Road overpass’s lack of clearance signage is not the type of sudden and unanticipated situation that would impose liability on a public entity, and as such, the judge correctly determined defendant was entitled to traffic sign immunity.”

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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