On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance in part; reversal in part -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, Justice.
This is a wrongful death action brought by plaintiff-parents against Manchester Township, its Chief of Police, a duty sergeant, and an unknown police officer. Plaintiffs sought damages for negligent conduct that they alleged contributed to cause the suicide-death of their seventeen-year-old son at police headquarters. Margaret Hake died while this appeal was pending.*fn1
Plaintiffs advanced two factual theories in support of their cause of action: (1) that the negligent supervision of their son while in defendants' custody contributed to cause the act of
suicide; and (2) that the defendants' failure to render prompt emergency care to the victim when discovered deprived him of a chance to be revived. The first issue was presented to a jury at trial and resolved in favor of the defendants. The second issue was never presented to the jury because of evidentiary rulings at the trial.
Plaintiffs appealed on both aspects. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment below in an unreported opinion. We granted plaintiffs' petition for certification. 96 N.J. 297 (1984). We now affirm in part and reverse in part. We leave undisturbed the jury verdict in favor of the municipality on the issue of negligent supervision of the youth. We reverse on the second issue and remand for further proceedings the claim of failure to provide prompt emergency rescue efforts.
The pivotal evidentiary ruling concerned the degree of competence required of a proffered expert witness whose testimony was intended to prove that lifesaving techniques might have saved the victim's life. This witness, Warren Mason, was the dispatcher on duty at the time of the accident. The court ruled inadmissible the offer of his testimony, although he was a trained first-aider, because the witness assertedly lacked the requisite knowledge to offer the opinion as to the cause of death. As a result of this threshold ruling other evidence relating to the duty of police officers to render prompt emergency assistance to apparent suicide victims in their custody was precluded. The duty of care plaintiffs were prepared to establish was that the proper emergency medical procedures applicable to police are that "persons are considered unconscious by police officers until pronounced dead by competent authority," and attempts at revival should be made until death is determined. The trial court held the proof of duty inadmissible in the absence of "medical testimony" that the lifesaving measures would probably have saved the victim's life. The exchange was:
THE COURT: So my ruling is that I will need medical testimony to establish the probability that it would have made a difference.
MR. MONAHAN [plaintiffs' attorney]: Meaning more probable than not?
THE COURT: Well, I mean that you are going to be able to call a medical person to testify, one, that when this man came into the room on the last time and saw the young man, that he was probably still alive and that, two, that if the procedures had been followed to a degree of reasonable medical probability, the young man would have been saved. It's no different than any other negligence case, Mr. Monahan.
We now hold that a reliable expert opinion on the lifesaving potential of emergency first aid services can be given by a witness whose competence as an expert in this field is demonstrated by education, training or experience, and that a professional license or degree in medicine is not a prerequisite to establish sufficient knowledge to qualify as an expert. Accordingly, plaintiffs should be permitted to demonstrate that their witness has the requisite specialized knowledge, training or experience to qualify as an expert. We hold further that in establishing causation it suffices for plaintiffs to show that defendants' negligent conduct negated a substantial possibility that prompt rescue efforts would have been successful, thereby constituting a substantial factor in causing decedent's death.
The tragic incident grew out of a motor vehicle arrest of Robert Hake on Friday, December 23, 1977. At that time, Robert was seventeen years of age. Two officers of the Manchester Township Police Department, on routine patrol in the early afternoon, received a report to be on the lookout for a suspicious vehicle in their area. They soon spotted Robert driving a car fitting the description. (It was his father's car.) Following a pursuit, the police officers apprehended Robert and immediately suspected him of being under the influence of alcohol. The arresting officers transported Robert to the Manchester Township Police Department and, commencing at about 2:45 p.m., tested him for the presence of alcohol. A second reading of the breathalyzer was at about 3:18 p.m. The blood alcohol readings were .12%. After reviewing the results of the breathalyzer tests, one of the officers issued Robert a traffic
summons for driving while intoxicated, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. Robert was fingerprinted at approximately 3:35 p.m. Following this, Robert was put into the "detention area" at the police headquarters. Detective Walizer, one of the arresting officers, called Robert's father at about 3:45 p.m. and told him that Robert had been placed under arrest but would be released into his father's custody if he came to pick him up. The police were also investigating potential criminal charges against Robert on account of the reported theft of a truck earlier in the day, and told Robert that he would have to come back at 10:00 a.m. on Monday to face possible criminal charges.
The trial focused closely upon the contents of the conversation between Detective Walizer and Mr. Hake. The municipal officials contended that had they known Robert had previously been in trouble with the law, they would have exercised greater care for his supervision. The plaintiffs insisted that they were satisfied that Robert was fully rehabilitated and that his juvenile record was of no consequence. In any event, following this conversation, Robert remained at the police headquarters. Mr. Hake lived in Mt. Laurel, about an hour away, and was unavoidably detained in his efforts to obtain transportation to Manchester.
The police officials maintained that Robert was not a prisoner and that therefore they did not remove Robert's belt. According to defendants, Robert was not in a cell, but was merely in a room that served as a multi-purpose room for various squad activities, such as fingerprinting and breathalyzer testing, as well as detention. The detention area is a small holding area described as about "six feet wide and about twelve feet long." The room containing the detention area has two cells and two outer doors, one that leads to the hallway and one that is directly opposite the radio room. The room was equipped with an intercom that was inoperative on the date in question. The hallway door was invariably locked. The door to the radio room was open but capable of being locked.
At about 4:10 p.m., Detective Walizer left the stationhouse, but before doing so, he left instructions for the incoming Duty Sergeant, Ernest James, concerning the arrangements made to pick up Mr. Hake's car. At approximately 4:30 p.m., the on-duty dispatcher, Warren Mason, noticed that the door to the detention area opposite the radio room was shut. Once shut, the door locked automatically and could be opened only from the outside. Mason had last gone in to speak to Robert at about 4:15 p.m. There is no testimony that anyone saw Robert close the door. Mason ...