George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge (Photo: Nancy Kennedy/Shutterstock.com)

The New Jersey state government is seeking to be cleared of civil liability stemming from the actions making up the Bridgegate scandal on the grounds that it can’t be ordered to pay for an employee’s intentional wrongdoing.

The state government moved for judgment on the pleadings Friday in Galicki v. State of New Jersey, a class action on behalf of individuals and businesses who felt the impact of a week of politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. The Tort Claims Act immunizes the state from civil liability where it is alleged that state employees engaged in intentional wrongdoing, according to the motion.

The motion comes after Bridget Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Deputy Director William Baroni Jr. was sentenced to 24 months for their role in the lane closures on March 29. They have filed notices of appeal. A third defendant in the lane closure scheme, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in connection with his role in the lane closures, is scheduled for sentencing June 14.

The state is named in one count of common-law civil conspiracy in the case, which is before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares. In the state’s motion papers, its lawyer, Benjamin Clarke of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin in Teaneck, cited Linares’ March 22 decision in another case, Ferrara v. Union County Probation Dept., dismissing a civil conspiracy claim against the state on the principal that the state may not be held liable for intentional torts committed by its employees.

In September 2016, Linares said in the Galicki case that it was “premature” to decide whether the plaintiff’s assertion of a respondeat superior theory of civil liability against the state might be sustainable, the motion said. In that ruling, Linares said the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claim against the state presented a question that is “too fact-intensive to determine at this nascent stage of the litigation, but the court shall provide leave to revisit this argument in due course. The state asserted in its motion that, with the pleadings closed and the parties about to undertake discovery on the issue of class certification, the time is ripe to revisit the legal viability of the conspiracy claim against the state. That revisitation should demonstrate that, as a matter of law, the state cannot be held liable for the alleged intentional, conspiratorial wrongdoing of the individual defendants.

“Since the sole basis upon which the State remains a party defendant to the case is a legally non-viable claim of ‘respondeat superior liability for civil conspiracy,’ a legal self-contradiction, the State should not be granted judgment on the pleadings,” the motion said.

The case represents two class actions which were filed in 2014 on behalf of businesses and individuals who claim to have suffered damages as a result of gridlocked traffic in Fort Lee on the first week of September in 2013. Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein conspired to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee as retribution for the refusal of that town’s mayor to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign.

Michael Epstein of the Epstein Law Firm in Rochelle Park, who represents the class members, did not return a call about the state’s motion. Clarke, the lawyer who filed the motion on behalf of the state, declined to comment.

Other defendants in the civil suit include Baroni, Kelly, Wildstein, Christie, the Christie for Governor campaign and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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