In daily life, some rules are meant to be broken, and some are made to be strictly followed. This is the lesson a New Jersey man recently learned when the Appellate Division affirmed the Superior Court’s denial of his request to extend a filing deadline in the case of Gartenberg v. City of Hackensack. The failure to timely file a required notice meant the man completely lost his right to sue for injuries sustained from a fall on a poorly maintained sidewalk in Hackensack, NJ.
In New Jersey, tort claims against public entities are governed by the Tort Claims Act (“TCA”). The TCA establishes restrictions and guidelines regarding how and when claims may be brought against public entities within the state. The restrictions of the TCA are technical and although the court believed the TCA is “not intended as a ‘trap for the unwary,’” it can be difficult to see it any other way. Avoiding being bitten by the fangs of the TCA requires either legal knowledge, proactive punctuality, or skilled legal counsel.
The TCA requires that a pre-suit notification be sent to the defendant within ninety days of the claim accruing. The accrual date is generally the day the accident happened, but it can also be interpreted as the day the plaintiff discovers the injuries, depending on the facts of the case. Within the TCA, there are provisions that outline what information must be included in the pre-suit notification. These are generally easy to understand. However, there is also a provision that allows the public entity to demand its own specialized forms be completed. In addition, if a plaintiff initially submits a generic pre-suit notification and the public entity responds by attaching their specialized form for completion, that introduces a question of a different deadline for submitting the form back to the public entity.
In the case of Gartenberg, Hackensack required the use of its own specialized form. This meant that although the plaintiff’s initial generic pre-suit notification included all of the basic information required by the TCA, the generic notice was not sufficient as pre-suit notification. Therefore, because the plaintiff did not reply back to Hackensack by completing their form for nearly a year, he did not meet the ninety-day requirement of the TCA, and as mentioned, completely and irrevocably lost his right to sue the city.
Now, there are situations where a court will allow an extension. The Court in Gartenberg gave the example of when a Plaintiff substantially completed the forms required by the public entity but perhaps there were a few minor “technical deficiencies that did not deprive the public entity of effective notice” of the suit. Another reprieve would be if the plaintiff was unusually incapacitated. This often refers to medical incapacitation as a result of the injury in question.
In what looks a lot like a trap for the unwary, these exceptions are not hard and fast rules, and courts normally interpret “technical deficiencies” and “medical incapacitation” much more strictly than the aggrieved plaintiff would like. Gartenberg felt that he had substantially complied with the letter of the law as described in the TCA, and that his distraction due to his recovery and rehab after his injuries should warrant an extension of the deadline. Both the trial and appellate courts thought otherwise.
If you have a claim against a public entity in the state of New Jersey, make sure you proactively educate yourself on the requirements of the TCA. Or better yet, call Ward, Shindle & Hall.