On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Mercer County.
Allcorn, Kole and Pressler. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
This appeal requires us to consider the scope of the State's statutory tort immunity in the context of personal injuries sustained by a visitor to a correctional facility.
The record before us on plaintiffs' appeal from summary judgment dismissing their complaint on the immunity ground is regrettably sparse. We are able, however, to extract therefrom facts which, if proved, raise sufficient question as to the viability of the immunity defense to have precluded the summary dismissal of the action.
The events here involved took place in December 1975 at a state-owned facility known as Knight Farm, which was then being used by defendant Department of Corrections (Department) as a "satellite honor camp" in conjunction with its operation and administration of the Yardville Youth Reception and Correction Center. The Knight Farm operation is described in an affidavit of Thomas F. Lynch, who was Superintendent of Yardville in 1975 and now serves as an Assistant Commissioner of the Department. According to Lynch, Knight Farm, at the time in question, was no longer being used as an inmate residence facility but rather, apparently, for the conduct of two day-time activities. One was a piggery operated by Yardville inmates under custodial supervision. The other, which is the one here involved, was a "community correctional program" known as Yardfields. The Yardfields program involved two categories of participants: a group of Yardville inmates trained as paraprofessionals, presumably in the field of social work, and a group of juveniles who had been adjudicated delinquents by the Mercer County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and had been placed on probation with suspended sentences to either Yardville or Jamesburg Training School. The program was evidently conceived of as affording rehabilitation therapy and counseling for the juveniles and a social-work type of career and educational experience for the inmates. The interaction between the juveniles and the inmates was, according to the way the program was conceived and structured, conducted without any custodial supervision but apparently with some noninmate professional supervision.
The record does not indicate either the nature of the professional supervision or the number of participants in the program or the number of days or hours a day of its conduct. Nor does it indicate specifically how the participants were transported to Knight Farm, although it appears that the inmate participants were transported to and from Yardville as a group. Also absent from the record is any clear description of the physical layout of Knight Farm. While we do know that there was one building thereon in which the Yardfields program was conducted, we know nothing regarding egress, ingress, fencing, size or other relevant physical details. Finally, while Lynch asserts unequivocally that "no unauthorized persons," including visitors, were permitted to be on the grounds on Knight Farm, there is nothing in the record to suggest that entry thereon by members of the general public was in any way inhibited at any time, either by guards, gates or even posted notices.
Plaintiff Gloria Flodmand (her husband sues per quod) was in 1975 employed as a waitress at a restaurant in the general neighborhood of Knight Farm. She apparently had become friendly with a Yardville inmate who had worked with her in the restaurant while he was on a work-release program. When he was about to be discharged from Yardville he apparently obtained her agreement to take an interest in another inmate, Joe, who was an inmate-participant in the Yardfields program, and he escorted her to Knight Farm to meet Joe. On several occasions thereafter plaintiff apparently went by herself to Knight Farm to visit Joe. On the day in question she received a telephone call while at work from a person unknown to her telling her that Joe was sick and had asked that she come to Knight Farm to assist him. She did so after her work day was completed, leaving the restaurant some time after 4 p.m. On her arrival, seeing no one anywhere around, she entered the building where the Yardfields program was conducted. The only person in the building was one Jerome Walker, then unknown to plaintiff, who was also an inmate participant in the Yardfields program. Walker led her to a back room where he
said Joe was waiting. Once there, he threatened to sexually assault her, brutally attacked her with a knife, stabbed her repeatedly and finally placed her in the trunk of her car.
Plaintiffs instituted this action against the State and the Department on the theory that the attack was made possible by the negligence of its officers and agents in the operation both of Knight Farm and the Yardfields program. During the pendency of the action plaintiffs sought to amend their complaint to add another basis for their negligence claims. Their attorney had apparently learned, after claiming that that information had been withheld from him by public officials, that there was a cache of weapons, including knives, in the Knight Farm building during the time in question. Apparently juvenile participants in the Yardfields program occasionally showed up at Knight Farm armed, and plaintiffs alleged that when they were disarmed by the noninmate professional staff, the weapons taken from them were placed in a drawer easily accessible to all program participants.
Plaintiffs' motion to amend the complaint and defendants' motion for summary judgment were heard together. Plaintiffs' motion was denied because of their inability, by reason (they claim) of their excusably late acquisition of that knowledge, to causally connect the weapon storage with the attack. Defendants' motion was granted on the ground that the conduct of the Yardfields program was a discretionary activity within the intendment of N.J.S.A. 59:2-3(a), conferring immunity upon the State in respect of all injuries attributable thereto. Plaintiffs appeal both these rulings. We are satisfied that the dismissal of plaintiffs' action was not warranted here in view of the substantial questions raised by this record regarding the applicability of the immunity defense.
The key liability provision of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. , is N.J.S.A. 59:2-2(a), which imposes upon a public entity ...