On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 239 N.J. Super. 554 (1990).
For affirmance in part and reversal in part -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
[125 NJ Page 389] This complex litigation arises from a swimming pool accident that left a prison inmate crippled. The prisoner sued the State under the Tort Claims Act. The State in turn impleaded various third-party defendants involved in the manufacture and distribution of the pool, asserting that they were liable under principles of negligence and strict products liability. Its actions against those so-called "pool defendants" included claims for indemnification and contribution as well as a direct claim for reimbursement of substantial medical expenses the State had incurred in the care of the prisoner. The issues on this interlocutory appeal are whether the State's claim against the pool defendants for reimbursement of the medical expenses is barred by the statute of limitations; whether the pool defendants can be liable to the State for indemnification and contribution
based on strict products liability when the prisoner's claim for damages against the State is based on tortious conduct under the Tort Claims Act; and whether application of the principles of comparative negligence, which may reduce or bar the State's claim for contribution, requires a comparison between the fault of the State alone and the pool defendants or between that of the prisoner and all defendants, including the State.
In July 1981, Constance Holloway, a prisoner incarcerated in a state correctional facility, fractured her neck during a recreation period when she dove into an above-ground pool and struck the bottom. As a result, she is a quadriplegic. Holloway dove from a deck that extended part-way around the pool. The State alleges that the pool, manufactured by Muskin Corporation (Muskin), contained inadequate warnings against diving activity, and that the deck, which the State had built, resembled a model sold by Muskin. The State further alleges that a Muskin sales catalogue, depicting a child diving, promoted the notion that decks made suitable diving platforms.
The case's complexity inheres in its procedural posture. In September 1983, Holloway filed suit for personal injuries under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, alleging that the State had acted negligently and had maintained a dangerous condition on its property. Her complaint sought damages, including substantial medical expenses. Although her claim was filed more than two years after the accident, it was not foreclosed by the two-year statute of limitations because the Tort Claims Act, at the time, barred prisoners' actions against the State until after release. N.J.S.A. 59:5-3. (That provision of the Tort Claims Act was declared unconstitutional in Holman v. Hilton, 542 F. Supp. 913 (D.N.J.1982), aff'd, 712 F.2d 854 (3rd Cir.1983), and was repealed by L. 1988, c. 55, § 1.)
One year after Holloway sued the State, the State filed third-party complaints against Muskin and KDI Sylvan Pools, Inc., the distributor of the pool. The first count demanded contribution for their contributory negligence conditional on the State's payment of judgment to Holloway, while the second alternatively sought indemnification because the State could be liable only vicariously or secondarily for Holloway's injuries. Approximately one year after filing that third-party complaint, in August 1985, the State filed an amended third-party complaint against the retailer of the replacement pool liner, Pelican Swim and Ski Center (Pelican), for indemnification and contribution. Pelican in turn filed a fourth-party complaint against the manufacturer of the replacement pool liner, SK Plastics Corporation (SK). Finally, in November 1987, over six years after the accident, the State filed a second amended third-party complaint against the third-party defendants as well as SK, claiming that all of those parties, generally referred to as the "pool defendants," were liable for Holloway's damages based on negligence, strict products liability, and breach of warranties. In addition, the State claimed for the first time that each was directly liable to it for reimbursement of the medical expenses it had incurred on behalf of Holloway. Those medical expenses totaled over $1,000,000 at the time of Holloway's parole in 1990.
Shortly before trial, in the Spring of 1989, the pool defendants moved for summary judgment on the State's claims for contribution and indemnification that were based on strict products liability. The court dismissed all claims based on strict products liability, reasoning that because Holloway was barred from suing the State on that theory pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(b), the State similarly could not assert any claims based on it. The court also ruled that the State's direct claim for reimbursement of medical expenses was time-barred because it had not been instituted within the two-year period of limitations for tort-based claims under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. The trial court further rejected the State's argument based on the
doctrine of nullum tempus occurrit regi (nullum tempus), which renders statutes of limitations inapplicable to the State.
The trial court issued two additional rulings applying principles of comparative negligence to the State's claims against the pool defendants. With respect to the claim for contribution, it held that if the State should be found liable to Holloway, it could not recover contribution from a third-party defendant if the percentage of fault of the State alone exceeded that of the particular third-party defendant. With respect to the State's direct claim for the medical expenses, the court stated that if that claim were reinstated, the State would be unable to recover from a third-party defendant if the combined percentage of fault attributable to the State and Holloway exceeded the percentage of fault of that defendant.
The Appellate Division, on interlocutory appeal, reversed the trial court's ruling that dismissed the State's claim for reimbursement of medical expenses as time-barred and reinstated the claim. 239 N.J. Super. 554, 560-61, 571 A.2d 1324 (1990). It also reversed the trial court's ruling that the State could not pursue a theory of strict products liability in its contribution or indemnification actions and reinstated those claims. Id. at 559-60, 571 A.2d 1324. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's separate rulings with respect to the application of principles of comparative negligence to both the State's claim for contribution and its direct claim for medical expenses. Id. at 561-62, 571 A.2d 1324. We granted certification, 122 N.J. 194, 584 A.2d 252, 253 (1990).
Relying primarily on theories of negligence and strict products liability, the State advances what it describes as a "direct claim" against the pool defendants for reimbursement of medical expenses incurred for Holloway's care during her confinement. That direct claim would arise in a situation where the State is not liable to Holloway but where the pool defendants
would have been liable to Holloway had she sued them. The Appellate Division determined that that claim was not dependent on any cause of action that Holloway had or might have had, and, applying the doctrine of nullum tempus, ruled that the claim was not time-barred. 239 N.J. Super. at 560-61, 571 A.2d 1324. We disagree.
The State contends, and no party disputes, that it has a duty to provide medical care to its prisoners and that it paid for Holloway's medical care pursuant to that duty. Saint Barnabas Medical Center v. County of Essex, 111 N.J. 67, 74, 543 A.2d 34 (1988). That the State has an obligation to provide for the health, safety, and well-being of persons incarcerated in its correctional facilities is generally acknowledged, whether that duty be founded on constitutional or common-law principles governing the State's responsibility for those remitted to its care or reasonably implied from statutes authorizing the custodial care of prisoners. 72 C.J.S. Prisons §§ 63-90 (1987). That obligation includes necessary medical and health care. The Appellate Division characterized the duty as "absolute." 239 N.J. Super. at 562, 571 A.2d 1324.
The State asserts that its duty to provide a prisoner such as Holloway with needed medical care is independent from, and is not based on, any tort duty it might otherwise owe its prisoners. The Appellate Division apparently believed that that absolute duty to Holloway gave rise to a direct claim for reimbursement of medical expenses that was not dependent on Holloway's right to claim those expenses from any third person. It concluded: "Even though the reimbursement action arises out of an injury to a person whose own claim was time-barred at the time ...