New Jersey Supreme Court to Let Jury Decide If Jersey City Officers Entitled to Immunity

In Estate of Hiram A. Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City (A-19-20/084381) (Decided August 4, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the immunities from liability provided by the Good Samaritan Act, a statute that immunizes officers from civil or criminal liability for assisting persons intoxicated in a public place to an appropriate location, and most New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA) provisions invoked by defendants did not apply in the case. The court further found that the defendants’ actions may be entitled to qualified immunity under certain TCA provisions, however, if the involved officers’ actions were discretionary, rather than ministerial, in nature.

Facts of the Estate of Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City

On August 3, 2014, at approximately 2:26 a.m., Hiram Gonzalez was involved in a one-vehicle accident. Officers Leon Tucker and Saad Hashmi of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) were dispatched to the scene. They determined Gonzalez’s vehicle was inoperable and called for a tow truck. Officer Tucker offered to drive Gonzalez to a nearby gas or PATH station, but Gonzalez refused, saying he would wait for his brother.

Officer Hashmi acknowledged that the standard police practice is to leave a stranded motorist in a safe place or offer them a ride within the city’s limits, but he claimed there is no standard practice for when a stranded motorist refuses a ride but is not in a safe place. Officer Hashmi also stated that he and Officer Tucker could have waited with Gonzalez until he had a ride, but they did not because it was a busy Saturday night in the summer and “there were a lot of calls going out.”

A call transcript shows that at 3:24 a.m., Officer Tucker told a dispatcher the “driver is gonna wait for his brother in the same location where he was. He refused to get in the car with us to head to the [S]hell station.” The dispatcher responded “ok.” Before leaving the scene after that call, the officers told Gonzalez to remain in the pedestrian walkway, which had a guardrail between the roadway and the sidewalk. Gonzalez was struck at around 3:42 a.m. According to a toxicology report, he had a BAC of .209% at the time he died. The officers claimed that Gonzalez did not appear intoxicated.

Gonzalez’s Estate filed a complaint against the City of Jersey City, the JCPD, and Officers Tucker and Hashmi. The trial court granted summary judgment for defendants, finding that the officers undertook their duties in good faith and were therefore immune from liability under the TCA. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that defendants were not entitled to TCA immunities. The court found that “because the officers were called to the scene of a motor vehicle accident, the officers’ duty was ministerial in nature.”

Supreme Court’s Decision in Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City

The Supreme Court modified and affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. “The immunities from liability provided by the Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, and most TCA provisions invoked by defendants do not apply here,” Justice Lee Solomon wrote. “Defendants’ actions may be entitled to qualified immunity under certain TCA provisions on which defendants rely, however, if the involved officers’ actions were discretionary, rather than ministerial, in nature. In this instance, because of a factual dispute, that determination is for the jury to make upon remand.”

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court first found that the officers’ actions do not implicate the Good Samaritan Act. As the court explained, the statute immunizes law enforcement officers — absent gross negligence — “for any civil damages as a result of any acts or omissions undertaken in good faith in rendering care at the scene of an accident or emergency to any victim thereof.” Significantly, although the section provides immunity for certain “omissions” as well as “acts,” omissions must occur “in rendering care” to be immunized.

The New Jersey Supreme Court found N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, which imposes a duty upon an officer to remove an incapacitated individual from a public place to an intoxication treatment center, similarly inapplicable here. As the court explained, if an individual is intoxicated but not incapacitated, an officer is permitted, in his discretion, to remove the individual from a public place to an intoxication treatment center. The statute provides immunity that applies to both the decision to remove an intoxicated individual and the determination as to his incapacitation.

Because neither officer believed that Gonzalez was intoxicated, the court determined that they did not make the necessary determination that would allow their actions to be immunized under N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16. It further found they provided no assistance to Gonzalez, but rather left him on the same part of the bridge where they first encountered him, which is not action or assistance as contemplated by N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16.

The New Jersey Supreme Court next turned to the TCA, determining that some of its provisions did apply. As Justice Solomon explained, the standard for liability under the TCA depends on whether the conduct of individuals acting on behalf of the public entity was ministerial or discretionary. When a public entity’s or employee’s actions are discretionary, liability is imposed only for “palpably unreasonable conduct.” Meanwhile, liability for ministerial actions “is evaluated based on an ordinary negligence standard.”

“The distinction between ministerial and discretionary action by police officers is situation-specific and thus can be difficult to discern. In essence, where the circumstances are thought to be such that reasonable policemen in the position of the defendants could have differed about whether or how to act, the specific decision at issue may be considered discretionary for the purposes of determining TCA immunity,” Justice Solomon added.

The New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that whether an officer’s conduct was ministerial or discretionary is a fact-sensitive analysis. While it concluded that least some of the officers’ actions were ministerial, to which an ordinary negligence standard applies,

it found that the decision when to leave the accident scene and where to leave Gonzalez is a “closer question.” Accordingly, it found that a jury should decide the type of conduct and what standard to apply.

“Here, if the facts in dispute are necessary to resolve whether conduct is discretionary or ministerial, summary judgment is improper; resolution of those facts requires submission to the jury,” Justice Solomon wrote. “If the jury determines that the decision to leave Gonzalez was ministerial, then the officers are not entitled to immunity under any provision of the TCA” and “the jury should therefore apply ordinary negligence principles.”

“However, should the jury determine that the officers’ decision to leave was discretionary, then qualified immunity exists in favor of defendants … and the jury must then resolve … whether defendants’ conduct was palpably unreasonable,” he continued.

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