Estate of Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City

This case presented the New Jersey Supreme Court with the issue of whether police officers responding to a one-vehicle accident on a highway bridge may be entitled to any of the immunities from liability provided by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA”), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, the Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1 to -35, or N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, a statute that immunizes officers from civil or criminal liability for assisting persons intoxicated in a public place to an appropriate location. Two officers responded to Gonzalez’s one-vehicle accident on a bridge in Jersey City. After Gonzalez’s truck was towed, and he rejected offers from the officers to drive him to a nearby location off the bridge, he called a friend to pick him up. The officers left before Gonzalez’s ride arrived, leaving him behind a guardrail on the bridge. After they left, Gonzalez walked onto the road, then was struck by a car and killed. Gonzalez had a blood alcohol content of .209% at the time he died. The Estate of Hiram Gonzalez filed a negligence action. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court modified and affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. The Court ruled that the immunities from liability provided by the Good Samaritan Act and most TCA provisions invoked by the defendants did not apply. However, the defendants’ actions may be entitled to qualified immunity under certain TCA  provisions if the officers’ actions were discretionary, rather than ministerial, in nature. “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.” Here, whether the officers were directed to leave the scene or decided to leave themselves was a genuine issue of material fact. Also, whether the officers in fact exercised discretion and considered allocation of resources in reaching their decision to leave was an issue of material fact. Therefore, the Court remanded for a jury to decide these issues of fact.

Estate-of-Hiram-A.-Gonzalez