Public Entity Liability for Inadequate Emergency Response

As residents and taxpayers, we entrust certain powers to our government and its agents, which in turn imbues it with certain responsibilities –  chief among those being to maintain safety and order to and to render aid when necessary.

By-and-large, the government does a decent job of upholding its end of the bargain. However, when it does not, the results can be disastrous. Pursuing litigation against the government and/or its employees for negligence can get complex, as the recent case of Henebema v. South Jersey Transportation Authority shows. highway1

Plaintiff was driving in a heavy snowstorm on the Atlantic City Expressway in December 2005. It was early morning. Visibility was poor. Several close-in-time and location crashes brought traffic on the highway to a grinding halt. Numerous people were seriously injured, including the plaintiff.

However, plaintiff alleges that due to dispatchers and police not properly prioritizing subsequent 911 calls, response time before emergency personnel arrived on scene was more than one hour. Our West Palm Beach injury lawyers know that while Florida doesn’t have the same kind of trouble with snow, there are many other conditions – fog, rain, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, etc. – that impact emergency response. Officials must be prepared for these possibilities and plan accordingly.

Assertions made by the plaintiff were that not only were the other drivers responsible, so too were the public entities because staffers failed to follow standard operating procedure in organizing a response to the crashes.

The first crash reportedly happened around 4 a.m., when a caller reported he’d lost control of his car, slammed into a concrete median, bounced off a barrier and spun around, coming to rest facing the wrong direction in the far left and center lanes. He and his passengers got out and quickly moved to safety, but the car posed a hazard to any oncoming travelers. State police were alerted by the dispatcher.

Fifteen minutes later, at the same location, another driver lost control and the vehicle got stuck in snow halfway in the road. He and his passenger got out, and a private ambulance going the other direction to another call stopped temporarily to assist. The ambulance driver parked behind that second disabled vehicle with its activated emergency lights on.

At 4:25, the third accident happened, where the plaintiff attempted to avoid the ambulance by passing on the left. However, she instead ended up slamming into the second driver’s car. She was able to crawl out through the passenger door. However, as she stood near her car, a fourth vehicle approached and struck plaintiff and her car, causing her serious injuries, including severing one of her legs.

Officers arrived roughly one hour after the initial 911 call.

She sued both other drivers and two public entities. The other drivers were found not to have been negligent. The jury did find, however, that the Authority was 80 percent liable and state police 20 percent liable for her injuries, awarding her $8.7 million with no finding of comparative fault.

On appeal, the public entities argued jury instructions had been improper because they were for principals of ordinary negligence, rather than first establishing whether underlying acts had been discretionary or ministerial, as required for lawsuits against the government.

A “ministerial” action is one that involves little or no personal judgment by the individual, while a “discretionary” action requires the exercise of judgment or deliberation. Government employees engaged in “ministerial” acts generally aren’t going to be held liable, because the courts hold they were acting within the scope of their employment, and therefore enjoy governmental immunity. The appellate court didn’t make a determination on whether dispatchers acted with discretionary or ministerial duty, but the panel did rule that this determination needed to be made before liability could be established.

The government appealed, arguing liability against all parties should be re-litigated, but the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected that argument, affirming the order for a retrial solely on the issue of public entity liability.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Henebema v. South Jersey Transportation Authority , Sept. 29, 2014, New Jersey Supreme Court

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