In order to determine whether the procedures available to New Jersey prison inmates to vindicate acknowledged tort rights against the state and state officials are constitutionally adequate, it is necessary to weigh all of the interests involved. See Logan, supra, at -- , 102 S. Ct. at 1157. Plaintiff's interest, of course, is quite substantial. As a prison inmate, his personal property holdings are necessarily quite limited. His interest in retaining possession of his personal property, therefore, or obtaining its value if lost, is of no small moment to him even if it might seem relatively trivial to one not incarcerated.
The deprivation effected by N.J.S.A. 59:5-3 is not, like the deprivation effected by the 120-day limitation provision in Logan, final in all cases. A prison inmate who has a relatively short sentence may regain his right of action in a reasonable amount of time and successfully litigate a damages action. In plaintiff's case, however, as in the case of many other prison inmates suffering long-term or life sentences, the bar to suit imposed by N.J.S.A. 59:5-3 is, for all intents and purposes, a final one. Even if such a prison inmate does obtain release from confinement prior to death, he probably will not be able, as a practical matter, to marshall the witnesses and evidence necessary to prove his case and will thereby lose his cause of action de facto.
For many of the same reasons, it is clear that the procedural hurdle created by N.J.S.A. 59:5-3, like the 120-day limitation provision in Logan, creates "an unjustifiably high risk that meritorious claims will be terminated." Id. at -- , 102 S. Ct. at 1157; see also Mathews v. Eldridge, supra, 424 U.S. at 335, 96 S. Ct. at 903. During the time lag between the accrual of a prisoner's cause of action and the time when he is released from prison and can commence his action, it is quite likely that key witnesses will die or become unavailable; that documentary evidence will be mislaid or destroyed; or that the defendant or defendants allegedly responsible for the injury will no longer be locatable. Hence, even if plaintiff is able to assert his cause of action eventually, the time delay occasioned by N.J.S.A. 59:5-3 will substantially enhance the likelihood of an erroneous decision.
The public interest served by prohibiting prisoners from filing suits against prison officials until release from confinement is not, for the reasons stated in the previous section of this opinion, particularly strong. The ostensible purposes of the statute are to promote "prison harmony," to discourage "frivolous lawsuits" and to prevent prisoners from enjoying an "outing in court." Whether the statute rationally furthers these aims, however, is open to question. Furthermore, to the extent that the bar on prisoner suits dilutes the deterrent effect of state negligence law and promotes official carelessness, the public interest is obviously disserved.
Weighing these interests, I conclude that the effect of N.J.S.A. 59:5-3 is to deny New Jersey prison inmates the minimally adequate procedures to which they are entitled under the Constitution for the vindication of their state-created right to sue the state and state officials for the negligent infliction of injuries to person or property. The states may or may not be required under the federal Constitution to provide tort remedies against state officials. Once they create such rights of action, however, they must provide for a "hearing appropriate to the nature of the case ... at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner." Logan, supra, at -- , 102 S. Ct. at 1159. Here, as in the Logan case, the state has created an "established procedure" which "destroys (plaintiff's) entitlement without according him proper procedural safeguards." Id. at -- , 102 S. Ct. at 1158.
5. Summary and Conclusion
For the reasons advanced in this opinion, I conclude that plaintiff is entitled, on the undisputed facts, to judgment as a matter of law with respect to his claim that N.J.S.A. 59:5-3 violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. I shall therefore issue a declaratory judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201, to this effect. Any further remedies to which plaintiff may be entitled by virtue of this decision must await further proceedings.
The Court will enter its own order implementing the rulings of this opinion. Should defendants wish to have prompt appellate review of this determination, I would entertain an application under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). See Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Wetzel, 424 U.S. 737, 96 S. Ct. 1202, 47 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1976).