Two New Jersey Supreme Court rulings handed down this week have helped shaped the Tort Claims Act (TCA). The first, Edan Ben Elazar v. Marcietta Cleaners, Inc., dealt with the TCA’s notice-of-claim requirement when dealing with a municipality, or any other public entity for that matter. Under the TCA, a plaintiff must file a notice-of-claim with a public entity within 90 days of the accrual of the cause of action. Absent extraordinary circumstances, the failure to file a timely notice-of-claim bars a tort claim against the public entity.
This 90 day period is similar to a statute of limitation, where one must file a tort claim within in given period of time, typically two to three years. The time limit begins when the claim accrues which in most cases occurs on the same date as the underlying tortious act. However, there are circumstances where the date of accrual is less clear. Typically these circumstances include instances where a plaintiff is reasonably unaware that they have sustained an injury or reasonably unaware that the injury was caused by the fault of another. Under these circumstances, courts have ruled that the shot clock on filing a claim does not begin to tick until the discovery of the injury or the party at fault. This is what is known as the “discovery rule.”
In Marcietta Cleaners, the Court examined the application of the discovery rule in the context of the TCA’s 90-day notice-of-claim requirement. The Court found the discovery rule is applicable to the 90-day notice- of claim much like it would apply to a statute of limitation. In other words, the 90 day period for which a plaintiff must file a notice-of claim or be barred from asserting a claim does not necessarily begin at the time the tortious act occurred. Instead, the 90 day period can begin much later but only if the failure to discover accrual of a cause of action is reasonable.
This ruling has the potential to open municipalities to claims which occurred months or even years after a potentially tortious incident. At the very least this ruling could lead to municipalities and other public entities needing to prove that a plaintiff’s failure to discover the accrual of a cause of action was unreasonable. While this may save public entities from defending a tort claim it would still be very costly to the municipalities and taxpayers.
The second case, Twanda Jones v. Morey’s Pier, Inc., dealt with whether or not a failure to timely serve a notice-of-claim on a public entity bars a defendant from making a cross-claim or third-party claim for contribution and common-law indemnification against the public entity. The Court ruled that the failure to timely file a notice-of-claim barred a defendant from making any such claims against a public entity.
The Morey’s Pier ruling correctly applies the legislative intent of the TCA to ensure prompt notification to public entities of potential claims against them so that they may remedy the underlying issue to avoid additional injury to others and so that they may plan accordingly for a potential payment of damages. To paraphrase the Court, if the claimant failed to serve a timely notice-of-claim the TCA’s plain language bars all claims including contribution and indemnification claims from defendants. “The Legislature did not distinguish between a plaintiff’s claim and a defendant’s cross claim or third-party claim.”
This ruling ensures that a municipality will receive the proper notice-of-claim under the TCA for any claims. It provides for assurance an attempted claim against a municipality, months or even years later cannot be sustained simply because the claim comes from a defendant rather than an injured party.
You should review this case with your municipal attorney for additional information on how this recent decision will impact your municipality.
Contact: Frank Marshall, Esq., League Staff Attorney, firstname.lastname@example.org, 609-695-3481 x. 137.