0

Minor’s Parent’s Portee Claim Against Public Entity Tolled For The Duration Of The Minor’s Tolling Period

On November 15, 2019, plaintiff Angela Tennant and her minor son, Micah Dunmore, were attending a high school football game when an individual fired a gun into the stands, striking and injuring Micah.  Angela was a witness to the events and, tragically, Micah died from his injuries five days later.  Ninety-one days after the shooting and eighty-six days after Micah’s death, his Estate, his mother Angela and other family members sent a notice of tort claims to the defendant Board of Education, asserting wrongful death and survivor claims.  Additionally, the minor’s mother, Angela, asserted a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress under Portee v. Jaffee for her injuries allegedly suffered in witnessing the shooting of her son.  The issue in the published Appellate Division Estate of Dunmore case (2022 N.J. Super. LEXIS 7 (App. Div. Jan. 20, 2022)) was whether the tort claims notices were timely filed.

This matter arose, as a result of the Estate filing a motion seeking a declaratory judgment that the tort claims notice was timely filed.  The Board conceded that the wrongful death claims did not accrue until Micah died on November 20, 2019.  Thus, the tort claims notice filed by the Estate and the family members as beneficiaries of the Estate was timely filed.

However, the issue was whether the tort claims notice for Angela’s emotional distress claim under Portee was timely filed.  At the trial court level, the judge deemed Angela’s claim timely filed, indicating that the tort claims notice of February 14, 2020 was filed within ninety days or within three months of the date of the accrual of the cause of action.  The Board appealed that decision, pointing out that Angela’s tort claim was filed actually ninety-one days after the shooting.

The Appellate Division found that the tort claims notice was timely filed, but for different reasons than expressed by the trial court.  First, the Appellate Division noted that the 90 day deadline to file a tort claims act notice under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 is not equivalent to three months.  The ninety day deadline is specific under the statute and “[t]here is no doubt that when the Legislature said ninety days it meant ninety days and not three months.”

Angela’s Portee claim accrued on the day of the shooting.  Hence, the Board argued that filing her tort claims notice ninety-one days after the shooting meant it was filed late.

In response, Angela argued that because Micah’s time to file a notice of tort claim and complaint was tolled under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8, the time to file her Portee claim should also be tolled for the same period of time.  She relied on the tolling period accorded to a parent’s claim under the statute of limitations provision in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.1.

The Appellate Division noted that the time to file a negligence action is governed by the two year statute of limitations set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.  However, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.1 permits an exception for a parent filing a claim for damages suffered by him because of an injury to a minor child.  In such a situation, the statute extends the time period of a parent to file a claim to the same period of time as provided by law in the case of a minor child so injured. This statutory provision preserves the parent’s claim until the child brings their claim.

Here, the wrongful death claims of the minor did not accrue until Micah died on November 20, 2019.  Thus, his Estate had ninety days from November 20, 2019 to file a tort claims notice and two years from that same date to file a lawsuit.

Thus, under the statute of limitations provision in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.1, the time for Angela to file her own lawsuit for her individual claims of emotional distress (under Portee) was also tolled until the Estate instituted suit.

The Court noted, however, that N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 was silent as to whether Angela’s ninety day deadline to file a tort claims notice for her Portee claim, arising from her witnessing of the shooting and injury to Micah, was also tolled.

Under prior case law, it had been established that the “savings provision” under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 tolls the requirement for a minor to file a tort claims notice until ninety days after the minor’s 18th birthday.  The Appellate Division noted that there was no precedent squarely on point stating N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 also permits the tolling of a parent’s Portee claim.

The Court found that if a parent’s Portee claim arising out of their child’s injury was not also tolled, “it would result in the absurd situation that the parent’s cause of action would likely be brought before a judge and a jury for trial, perhaps years or decades before the child’s lawsuit was initiated.”  The Appellate Division noted that this result would run “contrary to the principles underlying the entire controversy doctrine and promoting judicial economy.”

Thus, the Appellate Division found that the time to file a notice of tort claim must also be consistent concerning a parent and a child.  The Court held that if a minor’s time to file a notice is tolled under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 and a parent’s time to file a lawsuit regarding their claims is tolled as long as the child’s claim is tolled, “then the time for a parent to file a tort claims notice must also be tolled.”  In considering the two pertinent statutes, the Appellate Division concluded that “the tolling of a notice of tort claim must also be extended for a parent’s Portee claim to promote uniformity and predictability.”

Finally, the Appellate Division noted that Micah’s time to file a notice of tort claim was tolled until he died on November 20, 2019.  Thus, his mother Angela’s emotional distress Portee claim was also tolled until that date.  She filed a notice of tort claim eighty-six days later, which meant that her notice was timely filed under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 and, hence, she would be permitted to pursue her claim.

Leave a Reply