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Estate of Allen v. Cumberland County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 28, 2017

THE ESTATE OF ALISSA MARIE ALLEN,, Plaintiffs,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, A. GARCIA, RN,, Defendants.

          Conrad J. Benedetto, Esq. Danielle Marie Key, Esq. John E. Kusturiss, Jr., Esq. Kimmo Z. Hussain Abbasi, Esq. LAW OFFICES OF CONRAD J. BENEDETTO Melissa Yvette Hoffman, Esq. LAW OFFICES OF CONRAD J. BENEDETTO Attorneys for the Plaintiffs

          Daniel Edward Rybeck, Esq. WEIR & PARTNERS, LLP Stephen D. Holtzman, Esq. Jeffrey S. McClain, Esq. HOLTZMAN & MCCLAIN, PC Attorneys for Defendant A. Garcia, RN

          OPINION

          HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE, District Judge:

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Amber Garcia, RN's motion for partial summary judgment. [Docket Item 42.] On August 18, 2015, Plaintiff Christine Allen, both as the administrator of the estate of Alissa Marie Allen and in her own right, filed a complaint in this Court against several defendants, alleging a variety of claims arising from the unfortunate death of Alissa Allen on March 22, 2015 in the Cumberland County Jail. [Docket Item 1.]

         Defendant Amber Garcia, RN (“Garcia”) argues that Plaintiff's professional negligence claims (including those which could have been brought based on Garcia's alleged professional negligence must be dismissed with prejudice (or, in the alternative, that Garcia be granted partial summary judgment as to those claims) for Plaintiff's failure to timely obtain and serve an Affidavit of Merit from a qualified affiant as required by N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27 through -29, and that Plaintiff only be permitted to proceed as to Garcia with regard to their claims of violations of federal and state civil rights. [Docket Item 42 at 1-2.] Plaintiff argues in response that no such affidavit is required in this case. [Docket Item 47.]

         The principal issue to be determined is whether New Jersey law requires an affidavit of merit to be filed by one pursuing a claim of professional negligence of a nurse who allegedly conducted a deficient psychological examination of an arrestee, or whether the circumstances fall into the common knowledge exception to the affidavit of merit statute.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that such an affidavit was required for this professional negligence claim against Nurse Garcia. Accordingly, the Court will grant the relief requested by Defendant Garcia and grant summary judgment to her with regard to Plaintiff's claims of professional negligence.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The instant action arises out of the death of Alissa Marie Allen on March 22, 2015 in the Cumberland County Jail. Her mother, as administrator of Ms. Allen's estate and in her own right, is the named plaintiff in this action.

         On March 20, 2015, Ms. Allen was arrested by Millville, New Jersey police officers who transported her to and booked her into the Cumberland County Jail in the early morning hours of March 21, 2015. [Docket Item 14 at ¶¶ 14-15.] Plaintiff alleges that Garcia, among other jail personnel “were required to screen Ms. Allen not only for any physical problems, but also to determine if Ms. Allen presented a risk for any psychological problems, including suicide[, ]” and “had a legal duty to maintain a safe and suitable environment where Alissa Marie Allen could be kept free from injury, harm and death.” [Id. at ¶¶ 16-17.]

         On March 22, 2015, Ms. Allen “was discovered ‘hanging' in her cell” at the jail; emergency medical personnel responded to a cardiac arrest complaint but, tragically, Ms. Allen was pronounced dead at the scene. Her death certificate identifies hanging as the immediate cause of death. [Id. at ¶¶ 18-21.]

         Plaintiff alleges that Garcia, along with other Defendants, “failed to properly screen Alissa Marie Allen for any suicidal tendencies, or any other psychological problems, and also failed to properly monitor Alissa Marie Allen.” [Id. at ¶ 22.]

         Plaintiff's claims in the Amended Complaint filed on February 8, 2016 include common law claims for wrongful death (Count V) and a survival action (Count VI). [Id. at 11-13.]

         On February 18, 2016, an Answer was filed on behalf of numerous Cumberland County defendants, which mistakenly included Garcia. [Docket Item 15.] On March 31, 2016, a stipulation by all parties consenting to the filing of an Amended Answer on behalf of moving defendant Garcia was filed [Docket Item 16] along with a copy the proposed Amended Answer [Docket Item 17]. The Court subsequently granted leave to file an Amended Answer within 14 days on April 1, 2016. [Docket Item 18.] A Substitution of Attorney with regard to Garcia was prepared and signed by John C. Eastlack, Jr. as withdrawing attorney and Stephen D. Holtzman as superseding attorney and was ...


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