On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-4232-06.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jonathan N. Harris, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Stern, Graves, and J. N. Harris.
Paris Wilson is the sole survivor of a tragic mass slaying. He was left for dead with life-threatening wounds as his mother and siblings lay dying nearby in their home. After enduring multiple stab wounds allegedly inflicted by his uncle, Paris was finally able--more than thirty hours after the attack--to telephone a Jersey City 9-1-1 operator for help. Rescue arrived almost immediately thereafter, but those responders could not save Paris's mother, brother, and sister who perished as a result of their grievous wounds. Unfortunately, two earlier unheeded calls to Jersey City's 9-1-1 system--one communicated during the bloodshed itself--did not promptly bring emergency response services to stop the horrors being wreaked upon the Wilson household.
Plaintiffs in this litigation seek to hold several governmental actors--together with their public employers--just as responsible for plaintiffs' harm as the alleged perpetrator himself. Our review in this appeal relates to summary judgment orders that extinguished plaintiffs' claims against all defendants on the grounds of several types of governmental immunities and certain evidentiary shortcomings. We affirm in part; reverse in part; and remand for further proceedings.
Because summary judgment was granted in favor of defendants, we recite the facts most favorable to plaintiffs. Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op. at 3) (citing Guido v. Duane Morris, LLP, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2010) (citing Roa v. LAFE, 200 N.J. 555, 562 (2010))).
In the early pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, September 20, 2005, Marcia Wilson and her three young children--DeQuan, Dartagnania, and Paris--were in their Jersey City apartment located at 185 Martin Luther King Drive, also known as 207 Wegman Parkway.*fn1
According to the third amended complaint, Marcia's brother-- Dwayne Wilson--brutally attacked his family members with a knife, inflicting serious and, in some cases, lethal stab wounds upon each of them.
At approximately 12:50 a.m., Anthony Andrews, who was visiting in his sister's apartment across the hall from the Wilson residence, heard an uproar and used his cellular telephone to call 9-1-1. Because Andrews's emergency call originated with a cellular telephone, it was initially routed to a New Jersey State Police (NJSP) call center where it was answered by defendant Lu Ann Burd. The call lasted only a few seconds, and resulted in an immediate transfer to the Jersey City Police Department's (JCPD) 9-1-1 call center:
[Burd]: 9-1-1, where is your emergency?
Andrews: Hello, um, um at 227 Wegman. We heard somebody screaming next door, inside this building right here. [Burd]: What town?
Andrews: Jersey City. [Burd]: Alright hold on I'll connect you into the police department out there, hold on.
JCPD: 9-1-1 Operator 3-5, where is your emergency?
Andrews: Uh, [Line with NJSP disconnected.]
Defendant Laura Jean Petersen, a call taker at the JCPD, received Burd's transfer and spoke with Andrews:
[Petersen]: 9-1-1 operator 3-5, where is your emergency?
Andrews: Uh-185-uh-Wegman . . .
[Petersen]: 185 We-Andrews: Yeah, I hear some screamin[g] and throwing stuff, so I don't know what's going on next door. Somebody's fighting or something.
[Petersen]: Okay, and that's 185 Wegman Parkway?
[Petersen]: Okay, we're going to get someone over there as soon as possible, sir.
[Petersen]: Thank you, bye bye now. [End of call.]
In the moments between speaking with Burd and then with Petersen, caller Andrews--a non-resident of Jersey City-- inadvertently changed the address of the location of the emergency from "227 Wegman" to "185 Wegman Parkway." Both addresses turned out to be fatally incorrect.
At the conclusion of the call, Petersen completed a routine computer-aided dispatch (CAD) ticket that was transferred to defendant Michael Edward Clark, a dispatcher at the JCPD. The CAD ticket included the incorrectly reported location of 185 Wegman Parkway. For purposes of the CAD ticket, Petersen selected the call code "F1900-Person screaming/calling for help; time elapsed not applicable; injury not applicable." In the narrative portion of the CAD ticket, Petersen inaccurately explained that the "[reporting party] hears screaming coming from house next door, no further info." Petersen gave the call a priority two, which--according to plaintiffs' expert witness--is the second highest response priority.
Upon receipt and review of Petersen's CAD ticket, Clark dispatched defendant police officers Jose M. Santana and Ernest Vidal--who, between them both, had less than seven months experience*fn2 --to 185 Wegman Parkway. Both officers stated in their depositions that they were expected to respond only to the address provided by the dispatcher. Arriving at the location corresponding to 185 Wegman Parkway within five minutes of Andrews's initial 9-1-1 call, officers Santana and Vidal discovered a dwelling that appeared to be unoccupied. Santana stated that it never occurred to him they were at the wrong address because they had verified it with dispatcher Clark. The police officers were unable to find anything amiss after a brief canvass of the area around 185 Wegman Parkway.
At the officers' request, Clark attempted to re-call Andrews using the telephone number that had automatically appeared on Petersen's computer screen. He did so despite the fact that appropriate procedure required control sergeants or tour supervisors to attempt call-backs, unless the dispatcher asked specific permission to do so. Nevertheless, Clark pointed out that in regular daily practice, it was standard for dispatchers to make call-backs because otherwise the sergeants or supervisors would "be on the phone eight hours a day handling calls for four districts."
When Clark attempted to place the call-back to Andrews, the phone rang several times and then was transferred to voice mail, at which point Clark terminated the call-back without leaving a message. He explained, "[i]t's not part of our policy and procedures to leave voice mail messages on phones." Police officers Santana and Vidal suspended their incipient hunt for an emergency and resumed their regular patrol duties after having spent approximately thirty minutes at the wrong address.
Approximately twenty-two hours after making his first 9-1-1 call, Andrews placed a second 9-1-1 call at 11:09 p.m., still on Tuesday, September 20, 2005. Defendant Brenda Murdaugh-Jones of the JCPD answered the call this time:
[Murdaugh-Jones]: 9-1-1 emergency Operator 326, where is your emergency?
[Andrews]: Hello, I called the police last night --
[Andrews]: because I heard ...