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Collins v. Union County Jail

July 15, 1997

JESSIE COLLINS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNION COUNTY JAIL, UNION COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, JAIL DIRECTOR WARREN MACCARELLI, CORRECTIONS OFFICER GAYLAND ROBINSON, SUPERVISING LIEUTENANT JOHN DOE 1, SUPERVISION SERGEANT JOHN DOE 2, CORRECTION OFFICERS JOHN DOE 3 THROUGH 5, JOSEPH SALEY, OFFICER OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS, HAROLD GIBSON, DEPUTY COUNTY MANAGER AND DIRECTOR OF DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 291 N.J. Super. 169, 677 A.2d 210 (1996).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Coleman, J. Chief. Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Stein join in Justice Coleman's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Jesse Collins v. Union County Jail et al (A-102-96)

COLEMAN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue raised in this appeal is whether the verbal threshold provision of the Tort Claims Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), bars a claim of permanent psychological harm in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the rape of a prison inmate by a corrections officer.

On August 5, 1991, Jesse Collins, an inmate in the Union County Jail, was raped by Gayland Robinson, a corrections officer at the jail. In April 1992, Collins sued Robinson, Union County, and other governmental entities and employees seeking compensatory damages. Collins also sought punitive damages from Robinson, who eventually pled guilty to the criminal charge of official misconduct in office. Collins maintains that as a result of the rape, he suffers from a permanent post-traumatic stress disorder, as diagnosed by a his treating psychologist. Collins does not contend that he suffered any physical injury.

In September 1995, the trial court granted Union County's motion to dismiss all claims for compensatory damages and medical expenses against the governmental entities and employees. The court found that, absent residual physical injury, Collins' complaints of post-traumatic stress disorder constituted mere pain and suffering, and thus failed to meet the threshold requirement of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). The Appellate Division affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed by the trial court.

The Supreme Court granted Collins' petition for certification.

HELD:

A claim of alleged permanent psychological harm in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting form a rape by a correction officer constitutes a "permanent loss of a bodily function" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) of the Tort Claims Act.

1. N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) establishes a rule of absolute immunity when the threshold requirement is not met for certain categories of injuries. Because the Act does not define the phrase "permanent loss of a bodily function," the Court must look at legislative history and contemporaneous enactments to ascertain the intent of the Legislature. (pp. 5-6)

2. The Legislature intended that N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) preclude recovery for pain and suffering based on subjective evidence or minor incidents. Where, however, there are aggravating circumstances such as permanent loss of a bodily function, a permanent disfigurement, or dismemberment, and medical expenses exceed $1,000 recovery for pain and suffering may not be prohibited. Thus, the Court must determine whether the rape of an inmate is a sufficiently aggravating circumstance to qualify a permanent post-traumatic stress disorder, with no residual physical injury, as a "permanent loss of a bodily function." (pp. 6-8)

3. In Ayers v. Township of Jackson, the Court interpreted the threshold requirements of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) to find that the Legislature had expressly determined that the pain and suffering brought about by plaintiffs' emotional distress was not compensable under the Act. However, Ayers is distinguishable. In Ayers, plaintiffs were not physically violated and the actual claim of injury was different. The missing factor in all but one of the reported cases, interpreting N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) is an aggravating and intrusive assault that allegedly caused plaintiff to sustain a permanent psychological injury. Such an aggravating circumstance occurred in this case. (pp. 8-18)

4. Given the legislative history of the threshold provision of the Act and other pertinent legislative enactments, it is highly unlikely that the Legislature intended that only the physical injuries resulting from rape are to be compensated under the Act. Because the Court is persuaded that the Legislature contemplated that emotional trauma can be as disabling as a visible physical wound, psychological and emotional injuries should be treated the same as physical injuries under the Act's threshold provision when they arise in a context similar to the one in this case. (pp. 18-21)

5. N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) does not immunize Union County from liability for the post-traumatic stress disorder from which Collins allegedly permanently suffers as a result of the rape by a corrections officer. That alleged debilitating psychological disorder constitutes a "permanent loss of a bodily function" pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) of the Act. On remand, the trial court must determine whether the severity of Collins' injuries can be characterized as "substantial," the threshold standard articulated in Brooks v. Odom, 150 N.J. 395, 696 A.2d 619.

(pp. 21-22)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the complaint against the public entities and public employees is REINSTATED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for Disposition of the reinstated complaint.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and STEIN join in JUSTICE COLEMAN'S opinion.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

COLEMAN, J.

The issue raised in this appeal is whether the verbal threshold provision of the Tort Claims Act ("Act"), N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), bars a claim of permanent psychological harm in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the rape of a prison inmate by a corrections officer. The trial court and the Appellate Division both held that absent residual physical injury, the inmate's complaints of post-traumatic stress disorder constituted mere pain and suffering, and thus failed to meet the threshold requirement of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). We hold that a post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a rape may constitute a "permanent loss of a bodily function" within the meaning of the Act.

I

In August 1991, plaintiff, Jessie Collins, was an inmate at the Union County Jail in Elizabeth. He was confined to a "pod," which is a living area of the jail, located on the fourth floor. Inmates were restricted to their living areas except when required to attend a consultation, medical examination, or court appearance. An inmate scheduled for a consultation would be "called out" by a pod officer. The pod officer would escort the prisoner to a locked sliding door to exit the living area. At that point, the inmate would be turned over to a movement officer or a "rover." The movement officer would escort the inmate to a consultation area that was located one floor above the living area. When the consultation was completed, the procedure would be reversed. All such movements were required to be recorded. Under no circumstance was a pod officer to take an inmate out of a living area and into a consultation room.

On August 4, 1991, pod officer Gayland Robinson "called out" plaintiff for a consultation. Robinson escorted plaintiff from his living pod to the floor above and placed him in a holding area leading to the consultation rooms. No movement officer was utilized. Robinson then attempted to fondle plaintiff, but he was interrupted by the sound of another officer in the area. Robinson immediately returned plaintiff to his living area. The logs of plaintiff's pod reflect that this movement was not recorded.

On August 5, 1991, Robinson again called out plaintiff, this time, for a medical examination. Once again, Robinson escorted plaintiff out of the living area without utilizing a movement officer. When plaintiff began to walk to the elevator area that leads to the medical facility, Robinson directed him to walk up the stairs to the consultation area where he had taken plaintiff the previous day. Once there, Robinson began to fondle plaintiff and kiss him. Eventually, Robinson pulled down plaintiff's pants and forcibly sodomized him. Thereafter, Robinson directed plaintiff to return to his living pod. Similarly, the second inmate movement was not logged.

In April 1992, plaintiff instituted suit against Robinson, Union County, and other governmental entities and employees seeking compensatory damages. He also sought punitive damages from Robinson. Plaintiff maintains that as a result of the aggravated sexual assault he suffers from a permanent post-traumatic stress disorder, as diagnosed by a psychologist who treated plaintiff. Plaintiff does not contend, however, that he suffered any physical injury.

Robinson eventually pled guilty to criminal charges of official misconduct in office. He was sentenced to a custodial term of four years. He was also discharged from his job.

In September 1995, the trial court granted Union County's motion to dismiss all claims for compensatory damages and medical expenses against the governmental entities and employees, concluding that plaintiff's injuries did not meet the threshold requirement of the Act. A jury trial on the claims against Robinson resulted in a verdict of $100,000 for compensatory damages, $150,000 for punitive ...


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