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Marcinczyk v. State of New Jersey Police Training Commission

October 18, 2010

RAYMOND MARCINCZYK AND ERIN MARCINCZYK, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY POLICE TRAINING COMMISSION, DEFENDANTS, AND COUNTY OF SOMERSET, SOMERSET COUNTY POLICE ACADEMY, RARITAN VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR RICHARD CELESTE, DETECTIVE LIEUTENANT PETER LUBAS, DETECTIVE JOHN RUSSO, DETECTIVE JUDITH POLHILL, AND DETECTIVE WILLIAM LOFTEN, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 406 N.J. Super. 608 (2009).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

The Court considers whether an exculpatory agreement that a police recruit executed as a condition of participating in the Somerset County Police Academy's training program barred his claims for injuries.

In early 2003, plaintiff Raymond Marcinczyk became a security officer for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). In late 2003, he was promoted to the position of police officer on the condition that he attend a police academy for training, as required by New Jersey statutes. UMDNJ selected an approved school, the Somerset County Police Academy (Academy), for Marcinczyk's training. In order to attend the Academy, Marcinczyk and all other recruits were required to execute an exculpatory agreement. The agreement reflected the recruit's understanding that the training presented a risk of injury, and stated that the recruit chose voluntarily to participate and agreed not to assert any claim for money damages for pain or suffering, medical expenses, loss of wages, injuries, permanent disabilities or pecuniary losses sustained as a result of the training. If a recruit refused to sign the document, his or her application to the Academy would be rejected. Marcinczyk signed. In training, Marcinczyk was designated as one of two "lunch recruits." They were required to carry a seventy-pound cooler containing all of the recruits' lunches from location to location during the course of the program. On February 23, 2004, as he and the other lunch recruit were climbing a staircase with the cooler, Marcinczyk slipped on the steps and fell. He suffered severe and disabling back injuries.

Marcinczyk filed a complaint against the Academy, its director and supervisors, and others (defendants). The complaint alleged that negligence by the defendants caused his injuries. Based on the exculpatory agreement, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. They also asserted immunity from suit based on discretionary immunity provisions of New Jersey's Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:2-3(a) and 59:3-2(a), and maintained that the facts did not support a claim of negligence. The motion judge agreed with those arguments and dismissed the complaint.

Marcinczyk appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed, based solely on the exculpatory clause. 406 N.J. Super. 608 (App. Div. 2009). The panel held that the exculpatory agreement covered injuries sustained during lunch recruit duty and that there was no policy reason to decline enforcement of the agreement. The court did not reach defendants' remaining defenses.

HELD: The agreement that plaintiff Raymond Marcinczyk was required to sign before attending police academy training, in which he agreed that he would not assert any claims for injuries or other damages sustained as a result of the training, was invalid because it contravened public policy as expressed in the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 59:12-3. A public entity cannot condition the provision of a public service on the recipient's execution of a waiver of liability.

1. Under the doctrine of freedom to contract, parties bargaining at arms-length may generally contract as they wish, subject only to defenses such as fraud, duress, illegality or mistake. Such a contract is binding because the parties are conclusively presumed to understand and agree to the contract's legal effect. However, contracts that exculpate a party from its future carelessness are disfavored because they violate the goals of tort law-deterrence of careless behavior and compensation by wrongdoers for injuries sustained by victims. For this reason, exculpatory agreements must clearly state the effect of the agreement and that the person signing the agreement did so voluntarily and with full knowledge of the consequences. Here, there is no doubt that the agreement Marcinczyk signed met that standard. (Pp. 7-10)

2. Even if an exculpatory agreement is not ambiguous, however, it is well-established that it will not be enforced if it is contrary to public policy. In this case, the Tort Claims Act (Act) is the source of the public policy. After the judicial elimination of common law sovereign immunity, the Act was passed to re-establish immunity for public entities and public employees with certain limited exceptions. The Act has three aims: to protect public entities and public employees from constant legal onslaught in recognition of the breadth of their public responsibilities; to permit injured citizens to seek recompense from public entities for negligence in narrowly defined circumstances; and to avoid a piece-meal approach and impose order on the subject. The Legislature achieved those goals by re-imposing immunity for public entities but carving out narrow exceptions for which it determined that liability should attach. Compelled exculpatory waivers thwart the policies embodied in the Act by immunizing public employees from liability for conduct for which the Legislature intended them to answer; by depriving citizens of a statutorily-authorized remedy; by effectively reestablishing common law sovereign immunity; and by introducing randomness into a scheme that was intended to be uniform. Because public entities are barred from granting themselves greater immunity than the Legislation has afforded them, the exculpatory agreement signed by Marcinczyk contravenes the public policy expressed in the Act and cannot stand. (Pp. 10-13)

3. The Appellate Division substituted its own vision of public policy when it concluded that the exculpatory agreement served the public interest because it freed defendants from fear of litigation that might cause them to water down the rigor of the training program. The Act provides absolute immunity for certain actions by law enforcement officials, but does not extend absolute immunity to entities providing police training. It was not for the appellate panel to second guess the Legislature's judgment. (Pp. 13-16)

4. The Court's invalidation of the exculpatory agreement makes way for the operation of the immunities provided by the Act and for the narrow exception to immunity under the Act that is asserted by Marcinczyk in this case- negligent supervision in connection with ministerial duties. Defendants must answer that claim. Because the Appellate Division did not reach the remaining defenses asserted under the Act-discretionary immunity-and did not address whether Marcinczyk made out a prima facie negligence claim, the Court remands those issues to the Appellate Division for disposition. (Pp. 16-17)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, DISSENTING, joined by JUSTICES RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS, would affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division because the Act expressly states that a public entity is entitled to any defenses that would be available to a private entity, private entities are permitted to use risk-shifting provisions such as exculpatory agreements, and nothing in the letter or spirit of the Act prohibits public entities from doing the same.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which JUSTICES RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued January 20, 2010

At issue on this appeal is the validity of an exculpatory agreement that a police recruit was required to execute by the Somerset County Police Academy (Academy) as a condition of participation in the Academy's training program. The recruit was injured during the training and filed a lawsuit claiming a dangerous condition of property and inadequate supervision. In response, the Academy successfully invoked the exculpatory agreement on its motion for summary judgment and the Appellate Division affirmed.

We now reverse and remand. We hold that the exculpatory agreement is invalid because it contravenes public policy as expressed in the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 59:12-3 (Tort Claims Act).

I.

Because this case comes to us on a grant of summary judgment, we view the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. R. 4:46-2. So viewed, they are as follows: Plaintiff Raymond Marcinczyk was employed as a groundskeeper by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) when a job opened up in security. He applied for the position and was appointed as a security officer at the beginning of 2003. In late 2003 he was promoted to the position of police officer.

Marcinczyk's appointment was conditioned on his attendance at a police academy for training as required under N.J.S.A. 52:17B-68 of the Police Training Act, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-66 to -77.12, and N.J.S.A. 18A:6-4.4. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-68 mandates that any person seeking permanent appointment as a police officer must complete a police training course at a school approved by the State of New Jersey Police Training Commission (Police Training Commission). Such person may hold a probationary appointment in the interim. N.J.S.A. 52:17B-69. Every law enforcement agency is required to provide a newly-appointed officer with a leave of absence with pay to attend basic training. Ibid. A similar statute requires that any person appointed as a police officer for a public educational institution must complete a training course at a school approved by the Police Training Commission. N.J.S.A. 18A:6-4.4.

Pursuant to the statutory mandate, UMDNJ selected an approved school, the Academy, for Marcinczyk's training. The Academy is operated by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office at Raritan Valley Community College. It is directed by Richard Celeste and supervised, to a ...


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