Township Entitled to Assert Traffic Sign Immunity for Plaintiff Injured on Bike Trail

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Plaintiff, Albert Wood, sustained serious injuries while riding a scooter on the Manasquan Bike Trail in the Township of Wall. In Wood v. Township of Wall, A-0751-12T3 (December 17, 2013), the plaintiff claimed that Wall was negligent in its maintenance, supervision, and control of the trail, thereby creating a dangerous condition. Among other defenses, Wall claimed that the suit was barred by the ordinary traffic sign immunity under the Tort Claims Act.

The plaintiff contended that the trail was constructed in such a manner that it was unsafe. He asserted that the Township and the other defendants considered only the effect of the trail’s construction on the surrounding environmentally-sensitive areas.

The plaintiff’s expert inspected the trail and found that at the point where the plaintiff fell, the trail had a maximum downward slope of about 20 percent, which was quite steep. He noted that there were no signs present or any type of warning to alert persons of this steeply graded section of bikeway. In his opinion, the bicycle gradient exceeded the recommended grade found in a national park planning guide. Thus, he concluded that the slope of the bike trail was in an unsafe condition and contrary to industry standards.

Wall, however, contended that decreasing the slope where the plaintiff fell was not feasible. Based upon the hill, reducing the slope would have destroyed a significant amount of trees and result in a major excavation project.

The Appellate Division found that the trail could constitute a dangerous condition under the Tort Claims Act. While the natural topography of the land may have been safe for hiking, it was the construction of the trail that created the alleged dangerous condition.

Wall claimed that it had immunity as to the failure to warn claim based upon the application of N.J.S.A. 59:4-5, which provided immunity for injuries “caused by the failure to provide ordinary traffic signals, signs, markings, or other similar devices.” The plaintiff contended that this immunity could not apply because it applied only to a public street and not to pedestrian, bicycle, or scooter traffic on a recreational path.

In analyzing this issue, the Appellate Division found that the motor vehicle code (Title 39) defined traffic to include pedestrians in vehicles on highway for the purpose of travel. Highway is defined as the entire width between the boundary lines of public ways maintained for vehicular traffic. Vehicle excepts devices moved by human power. Further, Title 39 generally applies to the operation of bicycles.

Thus, after viewing all of the pertinent Title 39 provisions, the Appellate Division concluded that the Tort Claims Act immunizes a public entity’s decision-making regarding “ordinary traffic signals, signs, markings, or other similar devices” on a bike trail. Therefore, to the extent that the plaintiff’s claim rested upon a failure to provide signs or warnings regarding the trail’s slope, it found that summary judgment was properly granted.

However, the Appellate Division found a jury question as to Wall’s other claimed immunity – plan and design immunity. Accordingly, it remanded the matter back to the trial court to permit Wall to present sufficient proofs for this immunity, as well as whether Wall’s actions in failing to protect against this alleged dangerous condition was not palpably unreasonable.