On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Passaic County.
Allcorn, Morgan and Horn. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morgan, J.A.D.
Liability imposed by jury verdict upon two state police officers for the negligent performance of their duties in connection with a minor one-car accident requires us to consider the scope of a police officer's liability, or immunity, for negligence in the performance of his job under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. Also to be considered are more traditional issues such as proximate cause and several challenged trial court rulings on requests to charge, motions to amend and allegedly improper remarks in summation.
Because we are required to accept as true the evidence supporting the position of the party favored by the jury verdict, the facts pertinent to the issues raised on this appeal can be viewed as largely undisputed despite the substantial areas of factual dispute encountered during the trial of this case. The jury must have found that at about 10:30 p.m. on August 3, 1974 a vehicle occupied by eight persons, including plaintiff's decedent, Idanis Rivera, went out of control on Interstate Route 80 and came to rest on the shoulder and grass berm adjacent to the eastbound side of the highway, no more than 500 feet from an exit ramp.*fn1 No one was injured in what all considered to be a minor accident which nonetheless disabled the car. Shortly thereafter defendants Paul Dosky and Robert Weisert, New Jersey State Troopers, arrived at the scene in their patrol car, issued a summons to the driver for operating an unsafe vehicle and radioed for a truck, which subsequently removed the damaged
automobile from the highway. Although requested to, defendant troopers declined to escort the now stranded occupants (including two young children, two and three years of age) from Route 80 and refused to radio for a taxicab. Instead, the group was advised to walk to the nearest exit and off the highway.
It was the tragic events which occurred during their passage along Route 80 which generated the present lawsuit. Route 80 in this area is an eight-lane road, the four eastbound lanes of which are separated from the four westbound lanes by a concrete wall, a "California island." Decedent's group had been travelling easterly to Kennedy Airport before the accident. Adjacent to the right lane of the eastbound side is a ten-foot paved shoulder ending in a curb, beyond which is a grassy berm. The group was left by the officers on the shoulder or the berm.
During their progress toward the exit (they were carrying some luggage) one of the two young children wandered out into the right travelled lane of Route 80 and was almost immediately struck and killed by an unknown vehicle. The driver was joined to this suit as John Doe. In response to this tragic event, decedent ran out into Route 80 in an attempt either to rescue the child or recover her body. She, too, was killed by another driver, this one in the westbound lane, John Wachuk.
Suit was brought for the wrongful death of Idanis Rivera. The named defendants were the two officers who left them on Route 80 after the minor accident, the State of New Jersey who employed the two officers, John Wachuk, whose car killed Rivera, and John Doe, the unknown driver whose car killed the young child. Plaintiff's theory of action against the officers and the State was that they owed and breached a duty of aiding the stranded passengers in exiting Route 80. There was one mistrial caused by the settlement of John Wachuk.*fn2 After a
four-day trial, with damages stipulated,*fn3 the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor.
The State appeals, contending first that N.J.S.A. 59:5-4 affords it and defendant troopers in its employ complete immunity from tort liability in the given circumstances of this case. The critical provision upon which the State relies, N.J.S.A. 59:5-4, reads as follows:
Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to provide police protection service or, if police protection service is provided, for failure to ...