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Praet v. Borough of Sayreville

Decided: June 8, 1987.

CLAIRE PRAET, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ROBERT PRAET, DECEASED, AND CLAIRE PRAET, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOROUGH OF SAYREVILLE, SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, R. BEBERT, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, C. SIEMINSKI, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, RAY SZKODNY, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, A. COX, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, DOUG SPRAGUE, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, JEFFREY SPRAGUE, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, AND RAYMOND SUCHCICKI, IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PATROLMAN OF THE SAYREVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Pressler, Baime and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, P.J.A.D.

Pressler

[218 NJSuper Page 220] Plaintiff Claire Praet, individually and as executrix of the estate of her husband Robert Praet, brought this action to recover damages resulting from his death, which she claimed to have been caused by the negligence of defendants, a group of Sayreville police officers, who responded to the scene of his one-car accident. She appeals from the entry of summary judgment dismissing her complaint. We reverse, concluding that the trial judge erred in holding that the action was barred by the Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1 and -2.

According to the record on the summary judgment motion, it is apparently undisputed that decedent, while driving in Sayreville, struck a pole. His car overturned, leaving him with only minor cuts and lacerations but trapped inside the vehicle. Officers of the Sayreville Police Department promptly arrived at the scene and unsuccessfully attempted to extricate the decedent first by trying to pry open the driver's door and then by trying to pull him out of the rear hatch. A few minutes later the officers noticed smoke rising from the car. They suppressed the smoke with fire extinguishers which they obtained from their police cars and requested police headquarters to dispatch a fire truck to the scene as well as all other police cars equipped with fire extinguishers. Smoke or fire rose from the car approximately five more times, and each time the officers put it out. Ultimately, however, the fire extinguishers were emptied, and while decedent was still trapped inside and before the arrival of a fire engine, the car erupted into flames. A fire engine which then arrived extinguished the flames, and a first aid squad, using a hydraulically powered tool, extricated the decedent from the vehicle. The decedent had, however, suffered massive burns, which caused his death two months later.

Plaintiff's complaint against the officers alleged their negligence both in failing to extricate decedent from the car and in failing to prevent the fire. She also alleged that the public-entity defendants, the Sayreville Police Department and the Borough of Sayreville, were negligent in having failed properly to train and instruct its employees in correct rescue techniques and in having failed properly to allocate municipal resources involving rescue and fire equipment. In support of her claims against the officers and relying on the report of her proposed expert witness, plaintiff identified a fatal series of basic errors the officers allegedly made in their rescue efforts. First, they did not ascertain whether the door lock button was in the open or closed position before they tried to pry the door open. The door was in fact locked and had it been unlocked by raising the lock button, it is likely that decedent could have been quickly

extricated. Moreover, the officers did not attempt to determine whether decedent's seat could be reclined before they unsuccessfully tried to pull him out through the rear hatch. It was in fact reclinable, and had it been reclined, he could likely have been removed from the car before the fire. Most significantly, however, the fire, which was electrical in origin, could have been entirely averted had the officers either turned off the ignition during their rescue efforts or disconnected the battery cables. Finally, the officers, in violation of express police department procedures, failed to call the fire department until the smoke first appeared, approximately seven minutes after the first officer had arrived on the scene. The prompt arrival of a fire engine during that seven minutes would also have averted the tragedy.

Based on the foregoing recital, we are completely satisfied that plaintiff, at least in the context of the pretrial status of this action, had demonstrated a viable cause of action against all defendants cognizable under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq., 59:2-2(a), 59:3-1(a). And see Hake v. Manchester Tp., 98 N.J. 302 (1985); Battista v. Olson, 213 N.J. Super. 137 (App.Div.1986); Suarez v. Dosky, 171 N.J. Super. 1 (App.Div.1979), certif. den., 82 N.J. 300 (1980). The trial judge was nevertheless persuaded by defendants' assertion, upon which they predicated their successful summary judgment motion, that the action was barred by the Good Samaritan Act, 2A:62A-1.

The trial court's reasoning rested upon N.J.S.A. 59:3-1(b), which provides that

The liability of a public employee established by this act is subject to any immunity of a public employee provided by law and is subject to any defenses that would be available to the public employee if he were a private person.

The judge then concluded that the Good Samaritan Act affords an incorporated immunity within the intendment of this section of the Tort Claims Act. The Good Samaritan Act provides that

Any individual, including a person licensed to practice any method of treatment of human ailments, disease, pain, injury, ...


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