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Murray v. Brown

October 29, 1991


Donald S. Coburn, J.s.c.


This case arises under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. Defendant City of Newark has responded to the complaint by the pending motion to dismiss grounded on plaintiffs' alleged failure to comply with N.J.S.A. 59:8-6, one of the Act's notice provisions. That section permits a public entity to obtain more detailed information on damages than is required by the standard contents of claim provision, N.J.S.A. 59:8-4, the requirements of which were admittedly satisfied. Plaintiffs contend that the doctrines of equitable estoppel and substantial compliance shield their right to a plenary trial on the merits. I agree.

On November 26, 1989, plaintiffs Sean Murray and Randolph Morgan were injured when the automobile in which they were passengers collided with a sanitation truck owned by defendant City of Newark and operated by its employee, defendant Ronald Snead. A Newark police officer arrived on the scene, took statements from the drivers, and prepared and filed an accident report. On or about December 15, 1989, the City of Newark received from plaintiffs' attorney a notice of claim which fully complied with N.J.S.A. 59:8-4.

On May 10, 1990, plaintiffs' attorney filed notices of claim on the specialized forms provided to him by the City at a time not indicated in the moving papers. Although many questions on these forms were not fully answered by plaintiffs' attorney, the City's only response was to send a letter to one of the plaintiffs, Sean Murray, advising him that his claim was incomplete for failure to provide "medical interim reports along with bills." The letter further advised: "The claim will not be processed

until all of the information required by law is furnished in detail, together with copies of all bills and reports." The City failed to contact or correspond with plaintiffs' attorney despite its undertaking, according to the language of its own specialized notice of claim form, to do precisely that.

In S.E.W. Friel Co. v. N.J. Turnpike Authority, 73 N.J. 107, 373 A.2d 364 (1977), the Supreme Court established the standard for evaluating when suits could be maintained against technical defenses set forth in the notice provisions of the Tort Claims Act. The case involved an application to file a late notice of claim. The Court directed that the judiciary should act "'to the end that wherever possible cases may be heard on their merits, and any doubts which may exist should be resolved in favor of the application.'" Id. at 122, 373 A.2d 364. There is no reason to suppose that the Court would want a different and stricter approach in regard to N.J.S.A. 59:8-6 than it adopted for N.J.S.A. 59:8-9. Furthermore, this approach accords with the intent of the Legislature to avoid inequitable results and to provide "fair and uniform policies" to control actions against public entities. N.J.S.A. 59:1-2. It is with these principles in mind that I will consider the application of equitable estoppel and substantial compliance in this matter.

The doctrine of equitable estoppel has been held to be a bar to notice of claim defenses under the Tort Claims Act in varying circumstances. Dambro v. Union County Park Comm., 130 N.J. Super. 450, 457-58, 327 A.2d 466, (Law Div.1974); Anske v. Boro. of Palisades Park, 139 N.J. Super. 342, 350-51, 354 A.2d 87 (App.Div.1976); Hill v. Middletown Bd. of Ed., 183 N.J. Super. 36, 41, 443 A.2d 225 (App.Div.1982); Marley v. Bor. of Palmyra, 193 N.J. Super. 271, 299-300, 473 A.2d 554 (Law Div.1983). In each instance the estoppel arose because the conduct of the governmental entity justified the injured party's belief that the former was not dissatisfied with the claim information as submitted. The general principle has been framed in these words:

It is well settled that the notice requirements, being in the nature of limitations provisions, are subject to the application of estoppel principles. Hence, even if there is no substantial compliance with the notice provisions of the Tort Claims Act, a public entity will be estopped from asserting this defense "where the interest of justice, morality and common fairness dictate that course." Anske v. Boro of Palisades Park, 139 N.J. Super. 342, 348 [354 A.2d 87] (App.Div.1976). Hill v. Middletown Bd. of Ed., 183 N.J. Super. 36, 40 [443 A.2d 225] (App.Div.1982).

And in State v. United States Steel Corp., 22 N.J. 341, 358, 126 A.2d 168 (1956), the Court endorsed this expansive description of the doctrine:

"Equitable estoppel in the modern sense arises from the conduct of a party, using that word in its broadest meaning as including his spoken or written words, his positive action, and his silence or negative omission to do anything. Its foundation is justice and good conscience. Its object is to prevent the unconscientious and inequitable assertion or enforcement of claims or rights which might have existed or been enforceable by other rules of law, unless prevented by the estoppel; and its practical effect is, from motives of equity and fair dealing, to create and vest opposing rights in the party who obtains the benefit of the estoppel." 3 Pomeroy on Equity Jurisprudence (5th Ed. 1941) sec. 802. (Emphasis added.)

Newark relies upon Navarro v. Rodriguez, 202 N.J. Super. 520, 495 A.2d 476 (Law Div.1984), as answer to the estoppel argument. However, in my view its result is incorrect and inconsistent with the philosophy of the cited trial court and intermediate appellate court cases and with the ...

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