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Lebron v. Sanchez

May 21, 2009


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-5418-06.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lihotz, J.A.D.



Argued April 22, 2009

Before Judges Parrillo, Lihotz and Messano.

We are asked to review questions regarding the sufficiency of detail required in a notice of claim submitted to a public entity, pursuant to the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3. Plaintiff Dinesha Lebron, formerly known as Dinesha Mobley, appeals from summary judgment and dismissal of her complaint with prejudice against defendants Camden City Board of Education and Sharpe Elementary School (collectively Board). Plaintiff's suit sought damages resulting from injuries incurred more than ten years ago when she was an elementary school student. Plaintiff had served a tort claims notice on the Board within ninety days of the date of the accident. This was the only notice given. After attaining the age of majority, plaintiff filed her civil action asserting various legal bases for relief. The Board maintained plaintiff's tort claims notice was defective because the general statements contained in the document failed to sufficiently advise the public entity of the theories of liability now asserted in plaintiff's complaint. The Board argued plaintiff should have filed a more detailed notice of claim delineating her alleged legal bases for the Board's liability within ninety days following her eighteenth birthday. The motion judge agreed and dismissed plaintiff's complaint against the Board for failure to comply with N.J.S.A. 59:8-8.

Our review determines plaintiff's notice adequately afforded notice of her injury to the Board in compliance with the Act. We reject the Law Division's narrow interpretation of the statutory notice requirements set forth in N.J.S.A. 59:8-4. We also conclude plaintiff had no obligation to file an amended notice under the Act despite the passage of time between the first served notice and the filing of the Law Division action. Accordingly, we reverse the order filed June 9, 2008, and reinstate plaintiff's complaint against the Board.

The facts are derived from evidence submitted by the parties in support of and in opposition to the summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995).

On March 8, 1995, while walking home from school, plaintiff was struck by an automobile at the intersection of North 34th Street and River Road in Camden. At that time, plaintiff was a student at Sharpe Elementary School. The school day regularly concluded at 2:25 p.m. and the posted crossing guards departed their stations at 3:15 p.m. On that day, plaintiff was attending the first session of an after-school reading program scheduled to end at 4:00 p.m. Apparently, the students were released before 4:00 p.m. Plaintiff and two boys walked home. She believed a teacher may have assisted the three students as they crossed the street. At 3:45 p.m., plaintiff was struck by a car driven by defendant Luis Sanchez. The police report stated plaintiff was unable to make a statement following the accident but included a descriptive statement of the incident from Sanchez.

On April 4, 1995, a notice, as required by N.J.S.A. 50:8-4, was transmitted to the Board and the City of Camden. The notice listed plaintiff's name and address as claimant and provided the name and address of her then attorney. Under section "C. Occurrence" the notice stated:

On or about March 8, 1995, claimant Dinesha Mobley was leaving school on her way home, when she attempted to go across the street, claimant was struck by a[n] automobile at or near the 3000 block of River Road. In the city and county of Camden, there was no crossing guard at the time of the accident.

Additionally, the notice stated plaintiff suffered a broken ankle, swollen face and various other physical injuries for which she sought $1,000,000 in damages.

Thereafter, the New Jersey School Board Association Insurance Group transmitted its own "Notice of Claim" form to plaintiff. On plaintiff's behalf, her father, William Lebron, completed the informational request and submitted answers to the additional questions. When describing "how the accident or occurrence happened," the response stated: "Dinesha Moble[y] (minor) was coming out of school[], no crossing guard at the time she went to go cross the street when a vehicle hit her." Plaintiff identified the Board as the public entity that caused her damages. In response to a question seeking the name and address of all witnesses, the reply was "none." Also, plaintiff listed her medical providers. Finally, the answer "Crossing guard" followed the question: "State, in detail, each and every alleged negligent or wrongful act of the Public Entities and Public Employees, previously noted, which caused your damage."

On July 2, 2004, Lebron, individually and as guardian ad litem for plaintiff, filed a Law Division action against defendants Luis Sanchez, Carmen Vargas, the Board, City of Camden, and John Doe (a fictitious name), I/J/S/A.*fn1 Presumably, discovery commenced. The matter was withdrawn without prejudice before arbitration on November 2, 2005.*fn2

After engaging new counsel, plaintiff filed this matter within two years of her eighteenth birthday. The multi-count complaint asserts the Board's liability for negligent supervision, its failure to watch, protect and safeguard students, and its failure to provide a crossing guard. In the litigation, plaintiff answered interrogatories in which she elaborated on the factual bases underlying her theories of liability. Facts not disclosed in her 1995 notice included: the after-school program sent a letter to plaintiff's parents advising dismissal was 4:00 p.m.; a teacher may have assisted the children crossing a street; plaintiff's next door neighbor, "Maria," witnessed the accident and summoned plaintiff's parents who arrived at the scene; and Carmen Medina was a witness.

The Board filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting plaintiff's tort claims notice was deficient. The Board reasoned, "[s]ince the allegation was that a [c]rossing [g]uard was not present, and since the Board [] has nothing to do with the hiring or assignments of [c]rossing [g]uards, the Board made no further investigations," believing it had no liability. The Board argued plaintiff's newly asserted causes of action, supported by previously undisclosed facts, required her to file a new tort claims notice within ...

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