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Police Officers Found Not to Be Immunized in Alleged Failure to Render Assistance to Injured Plaintiff at Motor Vehicle Accident Scene

Two Jersey City Police Officers were dispatched to a motor vehicle accident in Jersey City at 2:26 am involving the truck of the decedent Hiram Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”), which he advised them had spun out of control. After responding to the accident, Gonzalez was left at the scene of the accident by the officers after he turned down the offer of a ride and, instead, allegedly advised them that he would wait for his brother to give him a ride. The facts were in dispute as to whether they should have known he was intoxicated at the time. At about 3:42 am, he was struck and killed while walking in the middle of the roadway. The issue in Estate of Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 689 (App. Div. April 17, 2020), was whether the officers and the City were immune from tort liability for his fatal accident.

Both officers denied noting any signs that Gonzalez was intoxicated. Based upon an autopsy performed, Gonzalez’s blood alcohol level was a .215. Plaintiff’s toxicology expert opined that Gonzalez’s blood alcohol level when he encountered the officers was a .20, which was 2 ½ times higher than the legal limit for driving.

At the trial court level, the defendants filed for a summary judgment based upon various Tort Claims Act immunities, including N.J.S.A. 59:3-(2)(a), absolute immunity for injuries resulting from the exercise of judgment or discretion. The plaintiff argued that the officers’ acts were ministerial and, under N.J.S.A. 59:2-3 and N.J.S.A. 59:3-2, the officers were not immunized for the negligent performance of a ministerial act.

The trial court judge granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion. He found that the officers had conducted their duties in good faith and that they had no duty to remove Gonzalez from the highway. They offered to give him a ride and secured a ride with a family member before leaving him behind the guardrail. The judge found that the defendants’ actions were immunized under N.J.S.A 59:3-3 (good faith enforcement of laws). He also found that there was no statutory duty to take Gonzalez to a treatment facility because he had no outward signs of intoxication.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing that an officer may be liable for the negligent performance of his or her ministerial act and, therefore, the officers were not immune from liability under the Tort Claims Act. Further, plaintiff argued that the court erred in finding the “officers had the discretion to abandon an intoxicated victim of a motor vehicle accident on a dark, rainy highway bridge.”

The Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court’s ruling and reversed. The Court noted that police offers have a duty to respond to accident scenes and render assistance. In responding to this motor vehicle accident, the Court found that the officers were performing a ministerial duty and would be subject to liability for the negligent performance of this duty. The police do not enjoy immunity for negligent performance of ministerial duties.

The Appellate Division found that there were factual issues that must be resolved by a jury as to whether the officers were negligent. There was conflicting factual evidence as to Gonzalez’s behavior, his conversations with the officers, the circumstances of the inoperability of his car, the officers’ version of their exchange with the dispatcher (as to why they left him at the scene),  and the assessment the area where he was left. The Court ruled that these issues could not be made on a summary judgment record. Thus, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter back to the trial court.

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