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Irval Realty v. Board of Public Utility Commissioners

Decided: July 25, 1972.

IRVAL REALTY INC. ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
BOARD OF PUBLIC UTILITY COMMISSIONERS OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Mountain. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Mountain, J.

Mountain

Plaintiffs instituted this action in lieu of prerogative writ against defendant, Board of Public Utility Commissioners, asserting a right to inspect records and reports to which they had been denied access by the Board. The trial court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and directed that the records be produced. On appeal the judgment of the trial court was affirmed by the Appellate Division. 115 N.J. Super. 338 (1971). We granted defendant's petition for certification. 59 N.J. 290 (1971). The original judgment has been stayed throughout the course of judicial review.

On May 5, 1969, a gas explosion occurred on property in Washington Township, Gloucester County, where plaintiff, Eastern Turkey, Inc., was operating a turkey farm. The premises are owned by plaintiff, Irval Realty, Inc. The explosion caused substantial property damage but no personal injuries.

On July 30, 1969, a similar but unrelated incident occurred in Newfield, also in Gloucester County. This explosion took place on premises then owned by Eleanor Papalardo, wife of plaintiff, Philip Papalardo. As a result of the injuries she sustained Eleanor Papalardo died.

The claimants seeking compensation for damages and injuries resulting from each explosion commenced separate suits. Both actions were initiated against South Jersey Gas Company, the utility supplying gas to the respective premises

and allegedly responsible for the accidents. This utility is not a party to the present proceedings. In due course application was made on behalf of the plaintiffs in both actions to the Board of Public Utility Commissioners, requesting to be allowed to inspect and copy certain reports which pertained to each of the accidents. The requests were denied. The reports which are sought to be examined are of two types. One kind of report is prepared by the utility and filed with the Board; the other type is an investigation report prepared by the Board's own staff.

The report prepared by the utility is submitted in response to N.J.A.C. 14:11-5.4, a rule promulgated by the Board requiring utilities to keep a record of and report to the Board all accidents wherein service to the public is adversely affected and wherein the safe conduct of the utility's business is affected. Such a report includes the name and address of the utility, the date and place of the accident, the effect of the accident upon service in the area, details of the accident itself, what corrective measures were taken and, finally, any recommendations the utility may care to offer to avoid a recurrence.

The second type of report, that customarily prepared by a staff member of the Board, includes many of the same kinds of data listed above, and also provides for collating information procured from occupants, neighbors, witnesses, utility representatives at the scene of the accident and policemen or firemen.

It is quite apparent that the information contained in these reports might normally be expected to be of very great help to any plaintiffs, such as those before us, who seek compensation for loss occasioned by gas explosions.

Having been denied access to these reports, the plaintiffs in the two damage suits, who collectively are the plaintiffs here, commenced this action claiming a right to the information contained in these documents by virtue of the so-called Right to Know Law, L. 1963, c. 73 now N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq. This statute declares it to be the policy of this State that public records shall be readily accessible for examination

by the citizens of the State, with certain exceptions designed to protect the public interest. It goes on to provide for a broad right of inspection of public records including the right to make or purchase copies. Excepted from the material that is thus made generally available are, inter alia, such records as may be removed from this category by "executive order of the Governor" or ". . . by any ...


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