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Jennifer Brothers v. Borough of Highlands

Decided: March 10, 1981.

JENNIFER BROTHERS, ETC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
BOROUGH OF HIGHLANDS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Fritz, Polow and Joelson. The opinion of the court was delivered by Fritz, P.J.A.D.

Fritz

[178 NJSuper Page 148] The complaint against the municipality in this matter was filed on behalf of an infant who suffered serious burns resulting from the spreading of a fire intentionally set in a privately-owned structure adjoining the cottage in which the infant was sleeping. While the two-count complaint sounds in negligence, it is inordinately difficult to ascertain what it is plaintiffs claim the municipality did which it should not have done or failed to do which it should have done. The complaint

charges in the first count only "the negligent failure of the [municipality] . . . to take action to protect its citizens" as a causative agent for the fire. The second count is no more definitive. It charges "the negligent failure . . . to take action." These allegations follow assertions that the municipality "was aware that the buildings [at the site of the set fire] were aged, decrepit, and highly susceptible to fires and the spread thereof," and that it "had knowledge that several recent fires had occurred on the premises." Additionally, it is said that the municipality "knew or should have known that similar fires were likely to occur in the future and that any fires [on the site of the set fire] presented a serious danger to the person and property of its citizens." But with all this, no more is suggested in the complaint than that with knowledge of these conditions the municipality "failed to condemn such structures for demolishing or in some other manner take action to provide for the welfare and safety of its citizens." (Emphasis supplied). At the outset, we observe in passing the difficulty inherent in determining whether a municipality acted unreasonably in a situation where plaintiffs do not (or cannot) more particularly define what it is the members of the governing body should have thought to do.

The trial judge granted the motion of the municipality for summary judgment. Evidently he, too, was concerned by the absence of precision in the charge against the municipality for he obviously was not at all certain what it was plaintiffs expected. He said:

Now, a municipality may be liable for negligence only if its alleged actions fall within the purview of this particular statute and the argument is made that the Borough failed to endorse [ sic ] something after they found out that there was a problem and after investigation. But they failed to condemn or demolish or advise people of a dangerous condition.

N.J.S.A. 59:2-6 reads in part:

"A public entity is not liable for injury caused by its failure to make an inspection of any property provided, however, that nothing in this section shall exonerate a public entity from liability for failure to protect against a dangerous condition as provided in Chapter 4."

When they talk in terms of "dangerous condition," they are talking about the condition of property. Here, the property was not owned by the municipality.

So with respect now to Section 59:2-4 which would be applicable, it says, "A public entity is not liable for an injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt a law or by failing to enforce any law."

It is clear in this particular case the plaintiff, unfortunately as far as a municipality is concerned, is on the horns of a dilemma. Either the charge must be made that the municipality failed to enforce a law, and if they failed to enforce the law, then there's immunity under the statute; or that the municipality didn't carry out something to its ultimate conclusion where there was no obligation to do it, and again there is immunity under the law.

But for the reason stated I find there is immunity under the pertinent sections of Title 59 and the cases cited by the moving party and the ...


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