Police Officer Not Immune from Tort Liability for Accident Occurring While Transporting Prisoner

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The plaintiff Danny Caicedo was severely injured when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a police cruiser operated by defendant Officer Fabian Caicedo while on duty with the defendant Newark police department. The officer had arrested an individual for a disorderly persons offense and was transporting him to police headquarters for processing when he struck plaintiff’s bicycle. In Caicedo v. Caicedo, 2015 N.J. Super. LEXIS 40 (App. Div. Mar. 17, 2015), the officer claimed he should be entitled to good faith immunity under the Tort Claims Act (“Act”) section, N.J.S.A. 59:3-3.

On appeal, the Appellate Division had to decide whether the defendants were exempt from liability under this statute on the basis that “a public employee is not liable if he acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of law.” While this was a close call, the appeals court found that the defendants were not immune from liability where the police officer had effectuated an arrest and was transporting the prisoner under non-emergent circumstances.

The collision occurred immediately following the plaintiff’s eighth grade graduation. The plaintiff was riding his bike home with three of his friends. There is a dispute as to whether he was weaving back and forth across the street. However, the plaintiff admitted that he was struck by the cruiser when he decided to cross, not at a crosswalk, on a busy street in Newark.

The officer contended that he should be entitled to immunity under the Act because he was enforcing the law when the collision occurred in that he had not completed the suspect’s arrest. The plaintiff argued that this immunity should not apply because the courts have not applied it in ministerial situations for police, such as patrolling the streets or transporting prisoners. Plaintiff contended that this immunity attached only when the police are acting under heightened circumstances such as responding to a crime, accident, or emergency in progress, or when they are called upon to make split-second decisions.

The Appellate Division pointed out that, if it followed the defendants’ argument, this statutory provision would immunize all police activities. The appeals court did not believe the Legislature intended this provision to be construed so broadly.

Had the officer been responding to a crime scene, to an accident call with unknown injuries or some other situation that required his immediate attention, this immunity would apply. It would also apply if he was transporting a prisoner that required immediate medical attention, was unruly, or otherwise constituted a dangerous presence. Here the record showed none of these circumstances.

Thus, the Appellate Division found that this good faith immunity did not apply to this accident. The officer was to be held to the same standard as an ordinary citizen operating his or her own motor vehicle on the roadways of the State. Accordingly, it upheld the verdict entered against the defendants.