Plaintiffs Must Follow Strict Time Requirements When Filing Tort Claims Against Public Entities

Plaintiffs must file a tort claims notice against public entities in New Jersey no later than 90 days after the accrual of a cause of action, unless “extraordinary circumstances” exist to justify filing a complaint out of time. In a recent case out of the New Jersey Appellate Court, the estate of a prisoner who committed suicide while in prison was barred from filing a tort claim against the prison because the estate waited too long after receiving the autopsy report.

In this case, the decedent was serving a six-month sentence at Hudson County Correctional Facility for driving while intoxicated. She was diagnosed with depression and was placed on suicide watch by the Correctional Facility. Despite this, she was found dead in her cell on July 14, 2017. Staff met with the decedent’s family on July 17, 2017 and informed them that the body was undergoing an autopsy, which would take several months before being completed. The autopsy report was eventually completed on September 19, 2017. It showed that numerous foreign objects were found in the decedent’s stomach, including Styrofoam, plastic condiment packages, milk cartons, an exam glove, and a nail clipper. The report concluded that she had died by suicide. Although the autopsy was concluded in September, the Facility did not mail a copy to the decedent’s family until December 15, 2017.  The Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders also conducted an investigation and issued a report on January 12, 2018. The decedent’s estate moved to file a tort claim against the Hudson County Department of Corrections on July 12, 2018.

According to New Jersey’s Tort Claim Act (TCA), public entities are protected from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which holds that public entities and governments generally cannot be sued unless they consent to the suit. The TCA, however, allows for certain exceptions to sovereign immunity for tort liability. The TCA requires that tort claims be filed against public entities no more than 90 days after the cause of action accrues. This entails a three-step analysis: 1) determining when the cause of action accrued, including accrual under the discovery rule, which holds that a cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff discovers that he/she may have a claim; 2) determining whether a claim has been filed within 90 days thereof; and 3) if the claim was filed after the 90 day period, determining whether there were any extraordinary circumstances to justify the late filing.

Here, the Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff’s cause of action accrued when the autopsy report was received. Although the plaintiff argued that the Facility created an “information blackout” in between the decedent’s death and the release of the autopsy report, the court found this to have no bearing on the 90-day period following the plaintiff’s receipt of the autopsy. The date the plaintiff filed the tort claim, July 12, 2018, was far past the 90-day time frame established by the TCA, which would have expired in March 2018. And even if the court considered the release of the Freeholder report as the accrual of the claim, the 90-day period would have expired in April 2018, still months before the plaintiff filed. The court held that the plaintiff did not show any extraordinary circumstances to justify the late notice, and thus affirmed the dismissal of its tort claim.

If you think you may have a tort claim against a public entity and have questions about your filing timeline, feel free to reach out to contact Ward, Shindle & Hall.