When you are injured as a result of the negligence of an employee of a State, county, or municipal entity or agency, your claim for personal injuries is governed by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. The Tort Claims Act provides public entities and their employees with various immunities that relieve them of liability for their negligent acts and omissions. One such immunity provision that is set forth in section 59:3-3 of the Tort Claims Act is the immunity from liability where the public employee acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of the law. The statute specifically provides:
A public employee is not liable if he acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of any law. Nothing in this section exonerates a public employee from liability for false arrest or false imprisonment. N.J.S.A. 59:3-3.
The Appellate Division recently discussed the application of this immunity provision to the actions police officer who struck a child riding a bicycle while transporting a prisoner arrested on a disorderly offense to headquarters for processing in the published opinion Caicedo v. Caicedo, A-6163-12T2 (App. Div. 2015).
In Caicedo, the defendant policer officer had arrested a suspected drug buyer for wandering and was transporting the prisoner to police headquarters for processing. The prisoner was searched and was not in possession of any weapons. He did not resist arrest, struggle, or refuse to cooperate either during the arrest of during the ride to police headquarters. He was seated in the back of the unmarked police cruiser with his hands cuffed behind his back and a police officer sitting next to him in the back of the vehicle. On the ride to police headquarters, the defendant struck a child who was riding his bicycle in the street. The child suffered a fracture to his right leg that required surgery and injuries to his neck and back.
At trial, the plaintiff sought to bar the defendant from relying upon the good faith immunity defense provided by N.J.S.A. 59:3-3. The trial judge found that the defense did not apply to the facts of the case and declined to instruct the jury on the defense. The jury subsequently returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor. The defendant filed an appeal arguing that the trial judge erred in finding that the good faith immunity defense did not apply to the case. The Appellate Division disagreed with the defendant upholding the verdict in plaintiff’s favor.
The Appellate Division initially directed that the determination of whether a police officer is engaged “in the execution or enforcement of any law” such that the police officer is entitled to the protections of the immunity defense is a fact sensitive determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis. It found that actions such as responding to a crime scene, responding to an accident call with unknown injuries, or responding to another situation requiring the officer’s immediate attention were actions that would come under the defense. It also found that the defense would be applicable to transporting an unruly prisoner that presented a danger inside the vehicle or a prisoner in need or emergent medical care, or the need for the officer to hasten his or her departure from a dangerous area. The Appellate Division noted that none of these emergent circumstances were present in Caicedo. While it found it to be a close case, the Appellate Division determined that the act of transporting a calm prisoner to headquarters was not the type of activity that should cloak a police officer with immunity from liability for an accident occurring during that transport. Instead, it found that the police officer is held to the same standard of care as an ordinary citizen operating his or her own motor vehicle on the roadways of this State.