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Ziemba v. Riverview Medical Center

Decided: August 8, 1994.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Before Judges Michels and Skillman.


The opinion of the court was delivered by


We granted defendants Riverview Medical Center, Augustine Tambini, Patricia Webb, R.N. and Dennis Wong, M.D. leave to appeal from orders of the Law Division that denied their motions for summary judgment in this medical malpractice action. The trial court held that because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendants acted in good faith and took reasonable steps in connection with the involuntary commitment of plaintiff, defendants were not entitled to immunity under N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.7 as a matter of law. We disagree and reverse.

The facts giving rise to this appeal arose out of a marital dispute between plaintiff and his wife. On the evening of February 7, 1991, apparently in a fit of rage, plaintiff threw pots, pans and other cooking utensils throughout his kitchen. The Colts Neck police were called to plaintiff's residence but no formal action was taken at that time. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff went to the Colts Neck Volunteer Firehouse, where he was a member. He discussed what had happened with his fellow firemen, and two of the firemen accompanied plaintiff back to his house. According to one of the firemen, plaintiff was crying, shaking and extremely upset. Upon arriving at the house, plaintiff was met by Colts Neck police officers who took plaintiff to the Colts Neck Police Headquarters. While at police headquarters, plaintiff was served with a restraining order which prevented him from entering the marital home or contacting his wife.

Although the record is unclear as to the precise chronology of events, it appears that sometime after plaintiff was released by the Colts Neck police, he returned to the firehouse. According to the firemen, plaintiff expressed a desire to commit suicide by jumping off the Thomas Driscoll/Raritan River Bridge. One fireman testified that plaintiff discussed his plan in detail, even mentioning the precise mile marker on the bridge from which he planned to jump. In an attempt to dissuade plaintiff from acting on his plan, several firemen talked to plaintiff. One fireman, defendant Peter Wagar, called his sister, defendant Alba Wagar, a social worker, and asked her to speak with plaintiff over the phone. Plaintiff denied ever expressing a suicide wish.

After speaking with Ms. Wagar, plaintiff left the firehouse. According to plaintiff, he drove toward the home of his mother in East Brunswick. The firemen, however, called the Colts Neck police because they feared that plaintiff was driving toward the bridge from which he had said he would jump. The police stopped plaintiff's vehicle and took plaintiff to the Riverview Medical Center Emergency Room. Plaintiff contends that the police stopped him, searched his car, detained him at gunpoint and then brought him to the Riverview Medical Center after telling him that he was being taken to the Colts Neck Police Headquarters.

In the early hours of February 8, 1991, Dr. Gerald Starkey examined plaintiff in the emergency room of the Riverview Medical Center. Dr. Starkey found no physical problems with plaintiff, but he requested an evaluation of plaintiff by a psychiatric crisis worker. Webb, a certified psychiatric nurse in the Crisis Unit of the Children's Psychiatric Center of the Riverview Medical Center, conducted the initial interview and psychiatric evaluation of plaintiff for the Monmouth County Screening Center. At this time, Tambini was the on-call screener and Dr. Wong was the on-call screening psychiatrist. Webb, therefore, sought the advice of Dr. Wong. Webb explained to Dr. Wong her findings concerning plaintiff, including his refusal to voluntarily engage in psychiatric treatment. Dr. Wong directed Webb to begin the screening process to evaluate plaintiff for possible involuntary psychiatric commitment.

After Webb completed her evaluation of plaintiff, Tambini interviewed plaintiff, questioning him about his history of marital problems, destructive behavior and physical violence in the household, and the recent events of the previous night. Tambini then evaluated plaintiff and completed the Monmouth Medical Center Screening Form, which included a detailed statement of findings and evaluation of plaintiff. In connection with the screening process, Tambini attempted to verify the information he received by trying to contact plaintiff's family. While the record indicates that Tambini called plaintiff's wife, and while plaintiff's wife acknowledges receiving a call, she did not remember who called or what was discussed. Plaintiff, on the other hand, claims that Tambini did not attempt to verify the information in any way.

Following Webb's and Tambini's evaluations, Dr. Wong then evaluated plaintiff. In connection with his evaluation, Dr. Wong did not independently verify the information that Tambini had furnished to him, but he did ask plaintiff if the information was accurate. Although Dr. Wong did not recall plaintiff's response, he testified that plaintiff was uncooperative, and that "there was no denial by plaintiff of the facts and Conclusions being presented to him." According to the detailed certification completed by Dr. Wong, plaintiff "admitted to having a gun and voiced threats to kill himself. . . ." Dr. Wong was of the opinion that plaintiff presented a danger to himself and others and should be involuntarily committed. Plaintiff was involuntarily committed to the Riverview Medical Center on February 8, 1991. He then was transferred to The CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, New Jersey and thereafter to the Ramapo Psychiatric Hospital in Wyckoff, New Jersey, where he remanded for seven days.

Plaintiff instituted this action against several defendants, including Dr. Wong, Webb, Tambini and Riverview Medical Center. Plaintiff charged these defendants with negligence and medical malpractice in their diagnosis, treatment and supervision of him. Specifically, plaintiff charges that Dr. Wong "did not take reasonable steps as required by the statute to assess [him] and evaluate the information provided by . . . Webb and Tambini prior to making the final decision to have [him] involuntarily committed." With respect to Webb and Tambini, plaintiff charged that they "did not take reasonable steps as required by the statute to assess [him] and evaluate the information provided by the Colts Neck Police prior to making the final decision to have [him] involuntarily committed." After issue was joined and discovery completed, defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that they were immune from liability under N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.7. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that defendants were not entitled to immunity under the statute as a matter of law because genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether defendants acted in good faith and took reasonable steps in committing plaintiff involuntarily for psychiatric treatment. In reaching this Conclusion, the trial court relied principally on the written report submitted by plaintiff's medical expert, Dr. Leslie Fine of Cedarhurst, New York. We granted defendants leave to appeal and consolidated the appeals.

We are convinced from our study of the record and the arguments presented that the trial court erred in denying summary judgment to defendants. It is firmly established that a motion for summary judgment will be granted where the pleadings, depositions and certifications do not show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact which would require Disposition by a plenary trial. R. 4:46-2. See Ziegelheim v. Apollo, 128 N.J. 250, 261-62, 607 A.2d 1298 (1992); Ruvolo v. American Cas. Co., 39 N.J. 490, 499, 189 A.2d 204 (1963); Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 73-75, 110 A.2d 24 (1954); Albright v. Burns, 206 N.J. Super. 625, 631-32, 503 A.2d 386 (App. Div. 1986); Miller v. U.S. Fidel. & Guar. Co., 127 N.J. Super. 37, 40-41, 316 A.2d 51 (App. Div. 1974); Sokolay v. Edlin, 65 N.J. Super. 112, 120, 167 A.2d 211 (App. Div. 1961). Moreover, "bare Conclusions in the pleadings, without factual support in tendered affidavits, will not defeat a meritorious application for summary judgment." U.S. Pipe and Foundry Co. v. Amer. Arbitration Ass'n., 67 N.J. Super. 384, 399-400, 170 A.2d 505 (App. Div. 1961). Here, the pleadings, depositions, certifications and exhibits submitted in connection with the motions show that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that summary judgment was appropriate for the Disposition of this matter.

New Jersey law provides for involuntary civil commitment of individuals who pose a danger to themselves or to others. The policy behind involuntary civil commitment is set ...

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