The family of a Jersey City school teacher and his 5-year-old daughter killed in a car accident at a New Jersey Turnpike toll plaza cannot sue the agency that runs the highway because it was improperly served about the suit, a state appeals court has ruled.
A two-judge Appellate Division panel said the attorney who originally represented the family did not properly comply with the notice requirements of the state’s Tort Claims Act in filing an action against the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
The statute requires that plaintiffs suing public agencies give notice within 90 days that they may be the subject of a negligence lawsuit.
According to Appellate Division Judges Clarkson Fisher Jr. and Thomas Sumners Jr., the original attorney, unnamed in the decision, improperly filed a tort claims notice with the state rather than the turnpike authority itself. The turnpike authority is a quasi-independent agency that is technically not part of the state government.
Timothy O’Donnell and his daughter, Bridget, were killed on Feb. 22, 2016, at the westward-bound 14C tolls in Jersey City when their vehicle was rear-ended, by a car driven by defendant Scott Hahn, and propelled through the toll plaza. O’Donnell’s sedan was then thrust into the eastbound lanes of traffic, where it was struck by a CarePoint Health van, according to the decision.
The court said the original attorney for Pamela O’Donnell—Timothy O’Donnell’s wife and Bridget’s mother—filed a timely tort claims notice with the state Office of Risk Management on May 16, 2016. The lawsuit alleged that the authority failed to properly maintain its facilities, leading to the accident. The claims against the other defendants remain unresolved, according to the decision.
Pamela O’Donnell retained new counsel, Jacqueline DeCarlo, of Middletown’s Hobbie, Corrigan & Bertucio, who filed a tort claims notice with the Turnpike Authority on Sept. 6, 2016—197 days after the accident.
The authority moved to dismiss the case, but a Middlesex County Superior Court judge, citing extraordinary circumstances, denied the motion. The turnpike authority appealed.
The Appellate Division, in reversing, said, “There was no obligation on the state to forward the wrongly filed tort claims notice to defendant.”
“And there were no obstacles preventing the first attorney from identifying defendant as the proper entity to be served a tort claim notice for negligent safety and maintenance of the Turnpike,” the panel said in the Jan. 23 per curiam decision. ”We also discern no merit to plaintiff’s extraordinary circumstance argument that the attorney’s mistake was because he primarily practiced outside this State.”
Calls to DeCarlo were referred to partner Norman Hobbie, who declined to comment. The attorney for the turnpike authority, Christopher Paldino of West Orange’s Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi, didn’t return a call seeking comment.