Failure to Timely Serve Tort Claims Act Notice Upon Defendant Bars Claim

Plaintiff alleges that she was injured when she fell into an uncovered trench drain at Snyder High School, operated by the Jersey City Board of Education. The day after the accident she delivered a note to the school advising of the accident. In Hernandez v. Snyder High School, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 155 (App. Div. Jan. 24, 2018), plaintiff contended that her note should constitute substantial compliance with her obligation to file a notice of tort claim.

Plaintiff’s note described the accident and provided the date and her telephone number. However, it did not include her home address, the nature and extent of her injury, her loss or damages, or her intent to file a claim against the defendant school and school board.

The accident occurred on November 20, 2014. After the plaintiff retained counsel, her attorney sent tort claim notices on December 12, 2014 but the notices were sent to City Hall for Jersey City. No notice was sent to the Board of Education office, which was at a separate location.

The Board of Education filed for summary judgment on the basis that it was not timely served with a tort claim notice. Plaintiff contended that the handwritten note substantially complied with the notice requirement. Further, Plaintiff argued that in the Yellow Pages, the City Hall address is listed as one of the addresses for the Board of Education.

The trial court rejected both of these arguments. The trial court judge found that the Board and the City were separate public entities and service upon the City was not effective service on the Board. The court also found that the doctrine of substantial compliance was inapplicable. Plaintiff’s note did not express her intent to pursue a claim and failed to include other information required by N.J.S.A. 59:8-4, such as her address and her injuries. Thus, the trial court granted the Board summary judgment.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed. It noted the strict requirement of the Tort Claims Act to file a timely notice. The Court stated: “We have repeatedly made clear that, after the ninety-day deadline has passed and a plaintiff has not utilized the procedure under N.J.S.A. 59:8-9 to obtain an extension of that period up to one year, courts lack jurisdiction to entertain tort claims if the required notices were not timely filed.”

Although the plaintiff contended the Board should be estopped from making this argument because if failed to raise it within one year of the accident – which would have permitted plaintiff to seek leave to file a late notice – the Court found that, even if the plaintiff had sought leave, it would have been denied. The Plaintiff’s explanation for serving the Board at the City Hall address was not a sufficient excuse when the Board’s correct address was readily available.

Further, the Appellate Division agreed that the plaintiff’s handwritten note did not substantially comply with Tort Claim’s Act notice requirement. The notice that was filed was missing some of the required information and was more akin to an accident report than a notice of tort claim. Although the plaintiff argued she should be entitled to additional discovery, the Court also rejected that argument. No amount of additional discovery would change the fact that plaintiff failed to serve the Board with the notice of claim.

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