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Knowles v. Mantua Township Soccer Association

May 29, 2003

JOSEPH M. KNOWLES AND SUSAN M. KNOWLES, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
MANTUA TOWNSHIP SOCCER ASSOCIATION, COUNTY OF GLOUCESTER, JOHN DOES 1-10 (FICTITIOUS), JOHN DOES 11-20 (FICTITIOUS) AND JOHN DOES 21-30 (FICTITIOUS), JOINTLY, SEVERALLY AND IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS, AND TOWNSHIP OF MANTUA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue in this appeal is whether plaintiff has satisfied the threshold for recovery of damages for pain and suffering against a public entity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3 (TCA).

On March 7, 1999, plaintiff sustained injuries when a gate struck his car in a park maintained by the Township of Mantua (Township) when leaving a soccer game. Initially, plaintiff was diagnosed with sprain and strain injuries to the soft tissue of his neck and back, sciatic neuritis of the left leg and possible disc herniation in the lower back. In June 1999, respondent was diagnosed with cervical and thoracic sprain and strain and lumbrosacral radiculopathy with abnormal EMG study. Subsequent testing disclosed a central disc herniation at L4-L5, post-traumatic discogenic pain syndrome, L4-L5 radiculopathy on the left, and tendonitis in plaintiff's left shoulder. This diagnosis was confirmed in a February 2000 report concluding that plaintiff's symptoms were permanent effects of the injuries suffered in the March 1999 accident.

Plaintiff filed suit against the Township, Gloucester County (County), and the Mantua Township Soccer Association (Association). Plaintiff complained of pain and numbness and that his injuries had adverse, life-altering consequences. In particular, plaintiff alleged that the injuries caused him to loose sleep, made him irritable and moody, prevented him from sitting for more than thirty minutes at a time, or from standing for more than fifteen to thirty minutes without experiencing pain. He also claimed that he could not walk for more than a quarter mile and was no longer able to play baseball or softball, bowl, or complete household projects.

The County and the Association are no longer parties. The Township filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff's injuries did not satisfy the "permanent loss of a bodily function" threshold of the TCA as explicated in Brooks v. Odom, 150 N.J. 395 (1997), and Gilhooley v. County of Union, 164 N.J. 533 (2000) (the Brooks/Gilhooley test). The trial court agreed and granted the Township's motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Division affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed by the trial court.

The Supreme Court granted plaintiff's petition for certification.

HELD: Plaintiff has satisfied the two-prong Brooks/Gilhooley test and has met the threshold for recovery of non-economic damages against a public entity under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3.

1. The TCA controls when and under what circumstances public entities are liable for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. In order to recover for pain and suffering, a plaintiff must satisfy both prongs of the Brooks/Gilhooley test: (1) an objective permanent injury, and (2) a permanent loss of a bodily function. The Court must determine whether a rational factfinder could conclude that plaintiff's injuries satisfy both prongs of the test. (Pp. 6-8)

2. Plaintiff met the first prong of the Brooks/Gilhooley test by presenting proof of "an objective permanent injury." The only remaining issue is whether the second prong of the test is satisfied. (Pp. 8-9)

3. The determination of whether a plaintiff's injury satisfies the "permanent loss of a bodily function that is substantial" threshold under the TCA depends on a fact-sensitive analysis. There can be no per se rule that would be decisive in all cases of this kind. However, our past precedents are useful in classifying injuries as either "substantial" or minor. Plaintiff's injuries more closely resemble those in Gilhooley, supra, (fractured patella) and Kahrar v. Borough of Wallington, 171 N.J. 3 (2002) (torn rotator cuff), then the less severe injuries sustained by the plaintiffs in Brooks, supra, and Ponte v. Overeem, 171 N.J. 46 (2002). Plaintiff has presented evidence of a substantial inability to perform many of the functions he previously enjoyed. Plaintiff's evidence satisfies the TCA threshold, thereby permitting a jury to determine whether plaintiff is entitled to damages for pain and suffering. (Pp. 9-15)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for trial.

JUSTICE VERNIERO filed a separate, dissenting opinion stating that plaintiff's injuries do not satisfy the TCA's high threshold for recovery; that plaintiff's circumstances are similar to those encountered by the Brooks claimant and, therefore, warrant the same result: no award for non-economic damages.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI and ALBIN join in Justice COLEMAN's opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO filed a separate dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.

Argued February 20, 2003

The primary issue raised in this appeal is whether plaintiff Joseph Knowles's injuries, sustained when his car was struck by a gate in a park maintained by defendant Township of Mantua, constitute a "permanent loss of a bodily function" that is substantial warranting recovery of damages for pain and suffering under N.J.S.A. 59:9-2d of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA). The trial court granted summary judgment to the Township of Mantua on the ground that plaintiff failed to satisfy the TCA's threshold as explicated in Brooks v. Odom, 150 N.J. 395 (1997), and Gilhooley v. County of Union, 164 N.J. 533 (2000). The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court's analysis. We disagree, and hold that the trial court ...


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