George Washington Bridge

A federal judge in Newark has entered judgment for New Jersey in a civil suit brought on behalf of plaintiffs who were caught in traffic jams brought on by the September 2013 George Washington Bridge access lane closures.

The state was granted judgment on the pleadings on a civil conspiracy claim that was based on a theory of respondeat superior in Galicki v. State of New Jersey. The plaintiffs filed no answer to the state’s motion. The suit alleged that state employees acted in concert to engage in misconduct that injured the plaintiffs.

Chief U.S. Judge Jose Linares granted the state’s motion for a judgment on the pleadings. He agreed with the state’s assertion that it cannot be held vicariously liable on a conspiracy claim based on alleged willful misconduct of state employees because the Tort Claims Act bars the state from being found liable for employees’ intentional misconduct. The Tort Claims Act applies to both negligent and intentional torts, Linares said.

Bridget Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Chris Christie, was convicted in November 2016 of intentionally misapplying property receiving federal funds in connection with her role in the lane closures, which were intended as retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie.

Linares said the Tort Claims Act provides that a public entity is not liable for the acts of public employee constituting a crime, actual fraud, actual malice or willful misconduct.

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 principle 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.

“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 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.

Michael Epstein of the Epstein Law Firm in Rochelle Park, representing plaintiffs and the potential class, said he was not surprised that the state was let out of the case, given Kelly’s criminal conviction. The remaining defendants in the case are William Baroni Jr., David Wildstein, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Chris Christie for Governor campaign. Baroni and Wildstein were both Port Authority employees at the time they helped Kelly orchestrate the lane closure plan.

The conviction of Baroni and Wildstein’s guilty plea in connection with the lane closures do not spell the same problems for the case as Kelly’s conviction does, Epstein said.

“We’re very confident of our case against the Port Authority,” Epstein said.

Attorney General Christopher Porrino, in a statement about the ruling, said: “We appreciate that the Court heard and accepted our argument that, under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, the State cannot be held liable.”