On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Monmouth County.
Long, Muir, Jr. and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Muir, Jr., J.A.D.
This appeal requires us to determine whether the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) is immune from liability under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq., with respect to the setting and timing of a traffic light as part of the original improvement of an intersection within the meaning of the plan or design immunity provisions of N.J.S.A. 59:4-6. We conclude that it is. Consequently, we affirm the order of summary judgment under appeal which dismissed plaintiff's claim against the DOT.
The facts giving rise to the appeal are undisputed. On November 26, 1985, at approximately 5:16 p.m., plaintiff's decedent
Gloria R. Hickman, a pedestrian, was crossing State Highway 36 (Route 36) at the intersection of Appleton Road in Leonardo, Monmouth County. At that point, Route 36 is a four-lane divided highway with two eastbound and two westbound lanes separated by a center barrier. Appleton Road runs north-south and intersects Route 36 at a 90 degree angle. The intersection is controlled by a traffic light.
Mrs. Hickman had crossed the two eastbound lanes of Route 36 and was standing near the barrier on the west side of the intersection waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the two westbound lanes. Meanwhile, Wright was driving a 1977 Datsun 280Z on Route 36 West in the right lane. As Wright approached the Appleton Road intersection behind another vehicle, the traffic light turned from green to amber. As the vehicle in front of him braked, Wright switched to the left lane and proceeded through the intersection.
As Wright made this maneuver, Mrs. Hickman stepped off the center barrier into the intersection in front of Wright's vehicle. Unable to stop, Wright's vehicle struck Mrs. Hickman. She was thrown 64 feet in the air before landing in the right lane of Route 36 West. Mrs. Hickman was transported to Riverview Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Three witnesses stated Wright had disregarded the traffic signal and that his speed appeared to be excessive.
The DOT installed the traffic signal in March 1967. At that time it set the timing sequence in operation the day of the accident. The DOT officials set the timing sequence in accordance with criteria of the United States Department of Transportation's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, which the New Jersey DOT adopted as the standard for design and use of traffic signals in this State. See N.J.A.C. 16:27-1. That timing sequence provides for a two second all red interval for the Route 36 traffic so the Appleton Road traffic can clear the intersection before the Route 36 traffic proceeds. It does not, however, provide a similar all red
interval before turning green for the Appleton Road traffic. Thus, the instant the light turns red for the Route 36 traffic, it turns green for the Appleton Road traffic.
There is no dispute that the traffic signal worked properly at the time of the accident. Rather, plaintiff predicates DOT's liability on the report of her expert, which indicated that Hickman's death might have been avoided if DOT had provided for a two second all red interval before the traffic signal turned green to permit the Appleton Road traffic to proceed into or across Route 36. Plaintiff's expert asserts the traffic signal in question has "never been adjusted to provide a safe interval."
Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred as a matter of law in ruling that the plan or design immunity provisions of N.J.S.A. 59:4-6 shield DOT from liability for its alleged negligence regarding the timing sequence of the traffic signal at the intersection of Route 36 and Appleton Road. Plaintiff argues that decisions as to the timing sequence of traffic signs represent an operational or ministerial action, not planning-level activity, and therefore immunity does not attach. In the alternative, plaintiff suggests that DOT's failure to follow the requisite approval procedures preclude immunity in this case. DOT maintains that the design immunity provisions of N.J.S.A. 59:4-6 are applicable to the timing ...