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Gianni v. County of Bergen

Decided: November 8, 1991.

ANTHONY J. GIANNI, JR., EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF PAUL A. GIANNI, ANTHONY J. GIANNI, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND CATHERINE GIANNI, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
COUNTY OF BERGEN, BERGEN COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, BERGEN PINES COUNTY HOSPITAL, NATIONAL MEDICAL ENTERPRISES, SUSAN KELLY, R.N., ANN CAMPAGNA, R.N., DOROTHY ROLAND, R.N., ALICE KRIEGER, R.N., AND GEORGETTE LASEU, L.P.N., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JOSEPH ZIMMERMAN, DEFENDANT



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.

Petrella, R.s. Cohen and Arnold M. Stein. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.J.A.D.

Petrella

Defendants-appellants appeal on leave granted from an order of the Law Division which denied summary judgment under the immunity provisions of N.J.S.A. 59:6-7(b) of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq. This appeal does not involve defendant Joseph Zimmerman.

Paul Gianni had voluntarily committed himself to Bergen Pines County Hospital (BPCH) on March 23, 1986, because he sought psychiatric treatment. He had a history of chronic

paranoid schizophrenia which required hospitalization in psychiatric facilities for most of the years between 1980 and his death in August 1986.

On July 24, 1986, defendant Zimmerman requested admission. He had had in excess of 60 admissions to BPCH for problems related to chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia and substance abuse.

At about 3:00 p.m. on August 9, 1986, Gianni was physically attacked by Zimmerman in the television room of the B-Ground (B-G) unit of BPCH. As a result of this attack by Zimmerman and the beating sustained by Gianni, Gianni lapsed into a coma and died 10 days later at the Hackensack Medical Center. The B-G unit is an acute psychiatric unit, reserved for patients whose conditions require monitoring to prevent injury to themselves or others. As such, it is considered a "locked unit." Although the patients are permitted to roam free and intermingle in the television room which is a section of the locked unit, the nature of the B-G unit as a locked unit prevents the patients from leaving the hospital of their own free will, notwithstanding the voluntary admission. In addition, according to the record, a voluntarily admitted patient at BPCH psychiatric unit is required to give 72 hours notice before discharge. See the then applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 30:4-48 (now repealed).*fn1

Not only did Gianni's illness warrant placement in a locked unit, more restrictive methods of restraint were sometimes employed in his case. Upon occasion, he was physically restricted to a geri-chair. On other occasions he had to be placed

in a "seclusion room," which is a separate room where the patient is placed "for the patient's own protection and for the protection of the other patients." On the morning of his death, decedent was placed in a seclusion room at 8:30 a.m., and was released into the television or day room at 10:30 a.m.

The complaint filed by the plaintiffs as representative of decedent's estate and on behalf of the individual plaintiffs, alleges negligence by all or some of the defendants charged with the care and treatment of the decedent as well as the care and treatment of Zimmerman. A claim was asserted against Zimmerman for intentional tort.

For the purpose of the summary judgment motion only, the defendants assumed that a prima facie case of negligence was stated. However, they rely on N.J.S.A. 59:6-7(b) and Popek v. Dept. of Human Services, 240 N.J. Super. 128, 572 A.2d 1160 (App.Div.1990), as conferring immunity upon the public entity and its employees. The trial judge construed N.J.S.A. 59:6-7(b) as being limited solely to situations involving injury by an involuntarily confined patient inflicted on another involuntarily confined patient. On this basis, the ...


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