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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
February 1, 1997
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New Jersey Tort Claims Act Allows Suit Against Public Entity When Existing Stop Sign Not Maintained

Joanne Eason suffered severe injury when another vehicle struck hers as she drove onto a through street from a cross street. The stop sign at the cross street was missing. Eason sued the other driver and the New Jersey Township of Montclair, the public entity responsible for the missing stop sign. Eason also filed against the New Jersey Automobile Full Insurance Underwriting Association (JUA) for fraud and unconscionable conduct relating to a clause in her policy specifying a 20 percent reimbursement set-off for noneconomic losses.

The Superior Court, Law Division of Essex County allowed summary judgment for the township through immunity provided by the Tort Claims Act. The trial court also found the reimbursement set-off enforceable and dismissed charges against the insurance company. When Eason appealed, the Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed the summary judgment for the township and remanded the issue of liability for maintenance of an existing stop sign to the trial court for reconsideration. On the issue of the set-off clause, the appellate court affirmed the judgment in favor of the insurance company.

The Collision

On June 4, 1989, for the first time in twenty years, Joanne Eason drove northbound on Willowdale Avenue in Montclair. She said she was aware that most intersections in Montclair were either through streets or regulated by traffic control devices; therefore, when she came to Willowdale's intersection with Washington Avenue, she checked for a stop sign or traffic signal. Seeing none, she proceeded. At trial, it was undisputed that there had been a stop sign confronting northbound motorists on Willowdale and that the sign was missing at the time of the collision. Although Eason looked both ways before driving ahead, hedges obscured her view to the west.

Traveling eastbound on Washington Avenue, Chester Johnstone knew he was on a through street and did not stop at the intersection with Willowdale. His vehicle struck Eason's, causing her severe injury.

Trial Court Decision

In allowing summary judgment for the township, the trial court depended on reasoning in Smith v. State of New Jersey, Dep't of Trans. (247 N.J.Super. 62, 588 A.2d. 854 (App.Div.1991)). Smith found the Department of Transportation (DOT) had immunity from liability for a claim arising from a crash between a tractor-trailer and a car. The car struck the tractor-trailer while the latter was stopped on a four-lane highway because it had come to an overpass too low for it to go under. DOT claimed they had placed a warning sign seventy-five feet before the exit prior to the overpass. The plaintiffs said there either was no sign or the sign was too close to the exit.
Allowing summary judgment for DOT, "[t]he court found that if the sign existed on the day of the accident, its placement could not create liability." Furthermore, "[t]he court reasoned that because there is immunity for not placing a sign initially and for where the sign is placed, there must also be immunity for not replacing a missing sign."

Applying this reasoning to Eason's claims, the trial court granted immunity to the Township of Montclair.

The trial court also considered Eason's request to void the reimbursement set-off provision in her automobile insurance policy. She argued she had not completed nor signed the application that initiated the policy and had not requested such a clause appear in her policy. Eason claimed she requested her present policy provide the same coverage as her previous policy, and the previous policy did not have a reimbursement set-off. The court decided, however, that "a reasonable inspection of plaintiff's policy would have revealed the set-off provision." Eason had renewed the policy, had opportunity to read the policy (which clearly described the set-off provision), and paid lower premiums because of the provision. Therefore, the trial court concluded Eason was bound by the provisions of the policy and granted summary judgment for the insurance company.

Apellate Court Decision

Eason appealed her claims against the township and the insurance company. The appellate court found that the appeal against the township forced them to reexamine the reasoning behind judgments in similar cases.

Citing Weiss v. New Jersey Transit, (128 N.J. at 382, 608 A.2d 254) and several other cases, the appellate court said, "It is clear that [N.J.S.A. 59:4-5] provides immunity for injuries caused by the municipality's discretionary decision to provide traffic lights or signs." N.J.S.A. 59:4-5 states:

    Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable under [N.J.S.A. 59:4-1 to 59:4-9] for an injury caused by the failure to provide ordinary traffic signals, signs, markings or other similar devices.

However, in Shuttleworth v. Conti Constr. Co., Inc. (193 N.J.Super. 469, 475 A.2d 48 (App.Div.1984)), this court found that when bushes on county property obscured a stop sign and were the proximate cause of death and injury resulting from a collision, the county's negligence was actionable. In Shuttleworth, the trial court allowed the county summary judgment, but the appellate court reversed, saying that "once the county determined to control the intersection, it had a duty to maintain the sign and that the failure to do so could be actionable under N.J.S.A. 59:4-2." N.J.S.A. 59:4-2 provides:

    A public entity is liable for injury caused by a condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:

    1. a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his [or her] employment created the dangerous condition; or
    2. a public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under section 59:4-3 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

    Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose liability upon a public entity for a dangerous condition of its public property if the action the entity took to protect against the condition or the failure to take such action was not palpably unreasonable.

Under N.J.S.A. 59:4-2, a public entity has liability for negligence when its failure to maintain its property resulted in a dangerous condition. The appellate court argued that simply by placing a stop sign at the intersection of Willowdale and Washington, the township recognized the intersection as dangerous. When that stop sign was down, the township should have foreseen the resulting collision and was therefore liable for its palpably unreasonable negligence in not taking measures to protect motorists.

In agreement with Shuttleworth and in direct contradiction to the wording in Smith on which the trial court based its decision, the appellate court concluded, "[W]e do not agree that 'immunity also exists for not replacing a missing sign.'" The court continued, "It would be nonsensical to provide liability for obscuring the sign, but not for not replacing a sign that had fallen or otherwise could not be seen by an approaching driver."

The appellate court referred to Weiss v. New Jersey Transit (128 N.J. 376, 608 A.2d 254 (1992)) in which the New Jersey Supreme Court reaffirmed the Tort Claims Act's provision of immunity. Here a collision happened just eleven days before traffic controls at a railroad crossing became operational--after eight years of delayed installation. The Supreme Court decided that when the public entity had never installed signals, despite the extended delay, immunity applied. Relating it to the present case, however, the appellate court quoted the Weiss decision:

    Were there any other triable issue of independent negligence--for example, had the underbrush that obscured visibility at the crossing been on defendants' property and subject to their maintenance, or had there been any other condition of the property that caused the dangerous condition to exist, e.g., a pothole of long duration, an oil spill on the roadway, or a broken traffic light, Bergen v. Koppenal, 52 N.J. 478, 246 A.2d 442 (1968), the complaint might have stated a cause of action.

The appellate court interpreted this Supreme Court wording as support for its conclusion that a downed stop sign (like a "broken traffic light") could result in actionable negligence by a public entity.

As further basis for allowing action against the township, the court noted that under N.J.S.A. 59:4-4, a public entity may be liable for negligence in failing to warn motorists of a dangerous condition. N.J.S.A. 59:4-4 provides:

    Subject to section 59:4-2 of this act, a public entity shall be liable for injury proximately caused by its failure to provide emergency . . . signs . . . or other devices if such devices were necessary to warn of a dangerous condition which endangered the safe movement of traffic and which would not be reasonably apparent to, and would not have been anticipated by, a person exercising due care.

The appellate court felt Eason's case was "an example of why the emergency warning signal statute should apply." The downed stop sign created a dangerous condition for a prudent motorist, and the court said the township should have provided "[a]n emergency signal or sign indicating that plaintiff must stop (even if it was just a cardboard replica of the stop sign attached to a wooden stake) . . ." After this collision, police personnel controlled the intersection until a stop sign was installed--just hours later.

Reversing the decision of the Law Division, the appellate court denied summary judgment for the township and remanded the case for trial. On Eason's appeal concerning the reimbursement set-off clause in her insurance, the appellate court found Eason had opportunity to read the clause that was clearly described in her policy and affirmed the lower court's decision to grant summary judgment to the insurance company.

[Eason v. NJAFIUA (New Jersey Automobile Full Insurance Underwriting Association) and Township of Montclair (N.J.Super.A.D. 1994) can be found in West Publishing Vol. 644 Atlantic Reporter, 2d Series, 142]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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