On April 9, 2017, plaintiff Jonathan Jeffrey was involved in a one vehicle motorcycle accident, resulting in complete quadriplegia. Approximately six months after the accident, he consulted counsel, at which point, he learned that his injuries may have been caused or significantly aggravated by the emergency medical technicians who placed him in the ambulance. In the published decision of Jeffrey v. State, 2021 N.J. Super. LEXIS 65 (App. Div. May 18, 2021), the plaintiff appealed an order of the Law Division denying his motion for leave to file a late notice of tort claim.
Plaintiff’s injuries resulted in several surgeries, including spinal decompression and fusion surgery. He suffered a complete spinal cord transection at the C6-C7 level of his spinal cord, resulting in complete quadriplegia.
Plaintiff was released from the hospital on April 17, 2017 and transferred to a rehabilitation center for two months. He continued to receive rehabilitation therapy on an out-patient basis for approximately four more months.
However, plaintiff remained completely disabled and unable to perform rudimentary movements, let alone to work. He had an inability to voluntarily move the upper and lower parts of his body.
Plaintiff retained counsel on November 15, 2017. At that time, plaintiff was using a wheelchair for mobility and had minimum movement of his upper body. His decision to consult counsel was, in large part, due to a collection notice dated October 24, 2017 from the hospital.
Plaintiff filed a certification that the first time that he understood that he had a potential claim against the emergency medical services and/or other persons that provided medical care to him immediately after the April 2017 motorcycle accident was when he consulted counsel. Thereafter, on March 20, 2018, his counsel filed a motion for leave to file a late tort claims act notice. The lawyer certified that it was not until September 28, 2017 that she finally received sufficient information from a representative of the hospital to conclude that plaintiff’s permanent disabilities may have been caused by some or all of the medical care and treatment he received at the scene of the accident. She sent in Tort Claims Act notices to the relevant public entities and thereafter filed a motion to seek leave to file a late notice of tort claim.
Pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, a plaintiff must file a notice of claim within ninety (90) days of its accrual (N.J.S.A. 59:8-8). The Law Division judge has the discretion to grant a claimant leave to file a notice of claim beyond that ninety (90) day time frame, if he or she provides by Affidavit:
(1) Extraordinary circumstances for his or her failure to file a timely notice of claim; and
(2) The public entity or employees involved have not been substantially prejudiced by the plaintiff’s tardiness.
The plaintiff argued to the trial court judge that the gravity of his injuries made it “impossible or impractical to view this delay as a failure to exercise due diligence.” The defendant argued that the motion judge properly exercised his discretion to find plaintiff did not show extraordinary circumstances to justify relief.
The Appellate Division concluded that the trial court judge mistakenly exercised his discretionary authority and reversed. The Court found that the motion judge “failed to duly appreciate the magnitude of plaintiff’s injuries and their life-altering ramifications.”
In the appeal, the plaintiff argued that the Law Division made a mistake in finding that the accrual date was April 9, 2017, the actual date of his accident. The trial court judge justified his decision in finding that, while it was difficult for the plaintiff to function in his daily life, there was insufficient evidence in the records to show that the plaintiff was not able to file a timely claim due to the severity of his injuries and his medical care. The court had noted that the plaintiff was released for treatment by in-patient rehab and that there was nothing to indicate that plaintiff through a family member, friend or individual, was prevented from contacting or retaining legal counsel.
The Appellate Division found that the trial court judge “grossly misapprehended the magnitude of plaintiff’s injuries. Plaintiff was 25 years old at the time of the accident. In one catastrophic event, he lost complete movement and sensation of his body.”
The Court further pointed out that after completing two months of in-patient rehabilitation, it would “be beyond insensitive to impose a duty on plaintiff to seek legal advice through surrogates composed of family members or friends, during this life-altering adjustment period.” The Appellate Division concluded that: “we are certain the Legislature did not intend for the judiciary to construe the term ‘accrual’ in N.J.S.A. 59:8-8 in a manner that abandons all vestiges of basic human empathy.”
Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that November 15, 2017 was the accrual date for his claim. Thus, plaintiff’s motion to seek leave of the court to accept the TCA notice of claim was only thirty-five (35) days beyond the ninety (90) day statutory requirement.
The Appellate Division noted that after plaintiff completed his two month in-patient rehabilitation program, plaintiff was then required to confront and adjust to his physical limitations. Further, the Court noted that plaintiff’s inherent difficulties associated with shifting from a motorcyclist to a quadriplegic wheelchair user “cannot be viewed as a barrier to deny plaintiff access to our civil courts.”
Thus, the Appellate Division found that the facts were sufficient to constitute “extraordinary circumstances” pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:8-9 which permits the filing of a late notice of tort claim. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s request to file a late notice of tort claims against the public entities that the plaintiff believed may have exacerbated his injuries.
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 30 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.