On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.
King, Havey and Muir. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.
This appeal requires us to interpret N.J.S.A. 59:6-7(a) which immunizes public employees and entities from liability for injuries caused by escaping mental patients. The statute reads in pertinent part
Escape of person confined; injuries between inmates.
Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for:
a. an injury caused by an escaping or escaped person who has been confined for mental illness or drug dependence; [ N.J.S.A. 59:6-7(a)].
We conclude that in the circumstance we describe below the Law Division judge erred in not directing a verdict in favor of the public employee and public entity defendants. We reverse the $65,500 verdicts for the plaintiffs and order entry of judgment in favor of these defendants.
This is the factual background. On July 22, 1980 defendant Kevin Cunicella was admitted to Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, a public institution, pursuant to an order of involuntary commitment from the Scotch Plains Municipal Court which resulted from his mother filing a complaint against him. He was first placed under the care of Dr. Ching Lin and was housed in the Intensive Treatment Unit ("ITU"), a locked ward where all detainer patients were initially placed pursuant to Marlboro policy. Lin also had treated Cunicella on his two earlier admissions
to Marlboro which were within 18 months of the July 1980 admission. During both of those prior stays at Marlboro, Cunicella had lived in Cottage Ten, an "open" facility where patients were free to go anywhere on the Marlboro grounds. The only significant restriction placed on patients living in the cottages is that they must report for roll-call at designated times.
On July 29, 1980 at about 4 p.m., after an interview with the Crisis Treatment Team (a group which evaluates a patient's suitability for transfer to an open ward), Cunicella was transferred from ITU to Cottage Ten. Upon transfer, defendant Dr. Erdogan became Cunicella's treating physician.
The following day at about 7 p.m. Cunicella walked out of Cottage Ten after having been denied permission to lie down. He had asked to lie down because his prescribed medication made him feel ill. His decision to leave was based on his intention to see a doctor for better treatment as well as a desire to go home. When Cunicella left the cottage, he noticed a visitor, Jeanne Weiss, with car keys in her hand. Cunicella grabbed the keys and drove off in her car across the Marlboro grounds at a high rate of speed. He passed the gatehouse at the entrance to the grounds and drove down the street and into a cornfield with Marlboro Hospital patrol officers in pursuit. Cunicella got his vehicle back onto the road and continued at a high rate of speed until he hit a bump at an intersection, became airborne and struck plaintiffs' vehicle causing it to skid off the road into a ravine. Immediately after the accident, Cunicella was captured and placed in the Marlboro ITU.
The jury found Cunicella 46% negligent; Marlboro personnel, other than doctors, 9% negligent; Dr. Lin 11% negligent; and Dr. Erdogan 34% negligent. They found that the supervision of Cunicella was negligent but that his treatment was not. The jury awarded $60,500 to ...