Tort Claims Act Monetary Threshold Bars Claim for Pain and Suffering But not Permanent Injury

Claims for pain and suffering are barred against public entities under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), unless the claimant suffers a permanent injury and incurs medical expenses in excess of $3,600. The claimant must be able to prove a permanent loss of bodily function, permanent disfigurement, or dismemberment in addition to the monetary threshold. In Hardy v. Sparta Township High School, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1117 (App. Div. May 16, 2016), one of the issues was whether the plaintiff, who suffered a partial finger amputation, could pursue a claim for pain and suffering because he failed to submit medical expenses in excess of $3600.

The plaintiff, Cameron Hardy, age 17 was participating in an organized off-season weight lifting program for high school football players. Plaintiff was paired with another player to each hold opposite ends of a heavy-weight hex lifting bar loaded with weights. While carrying the bar, the other player slipped and fell and the bar fell on plaintiff’s right hand, partially amputating his middle finger and severing the tip of his index finger. The doctor was able to reattach his middle finger, but in a deformed state. However, the tip of his index finger could not be reattached at the hospital. The doctor effected a partial repair by pulling the flap over the top of the finger, but leaving the index finger deformed and disfigured.

Plaintiff sued Sparta, alleging that Sparta breached its duty of care to him, that it negligently supervised the training activity. He sought damages for permanent injuries, pain and suffering, and future medical expenses.

Sparta filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. One of the issues raised by the trial court judge was whether the plaintiff had met the $3600 monetary threshold under the Tort Claims Act. The judge barred the plaintiff’s claim for pain and suffering because he failed to document $3600 in medical bills.

Upon appeal, the Appellate Division noted that the law is clear that to pursue a pain and suffering claim, a plaintiff must suffer a permanent injury and his medical expenses must exceed the monetary threshold of $3600. Because the plaintiff failed to submit proof of medical bills in at least that amount, the Court found that the claim for pain and suffering was barred.

However, the plaintiff could still pursue a claim for the permanent disfigurement of his hand. Thus, the Appellate Division found that, while the plaintiff’s claim for pain and suffering was barred due to his failure to meet the monetary threshold, this failure did not bar his right to seek damages for the permanent disfigurement of his hand. Due to his permanent disfigurement of his reattached deformed middle finger and his significantly shortened and scarred index finger, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claim for permanent injury remained viable.