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New Jersey Supreme Court Heightens Standard of Care For NJ Transit
On February 17, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Maison v. New Jersey Transit Corporation, et al. issued an opinion that heightened the standard of care owed to passengers on the New Jersey Transit system (hereafter “NJ Transit”) (https://www.njtransit.com/), similar to other common carrier in New Jersey. This heightened standard placed greater responsibility on NJ Transit to ensure that passengers paying to use their services are safe from dangerous conditions and unruly co-passengers.
In Maison, plaintiff Anasia Maison took a NJ Transit bus home from work. During the ride, a group of teenagers verbally and physically harassed her as the bus driver silently watched and drove on. Despite the escalating threats and behavior of the teenagers, the bus driver did not call out the teenagers, stop the bus, or contact NJ Transit or the police despite Maison’s pleas for help. As one of the teenagers left the bus, he threw a bottle striking Maison in the forehead, causing a permanent and serious injury. This included being transported to the hospital where she received twenty-two stitches to treat the wound on her forehead, which caused a permanent scar and ongoing headaches.
Maison filed a negligence action against defendants NJ Transit and the bus driver alleging that they breached their duty of care to protect her from foreseeable dangers presented by the violent conduct of the teenage passengers.
The trial court determined that, as a matter of law: (1) the heighten common-carrier standard of care applied to Defendants; (2) the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“ NJ TCA”) did not shield Defendants from liability; and (3) and comparative fault could not be allocated to the unidentified bottle thrower. The jury was charged on the law applicable to common carriers, as set forth in Model Jury Charges (Civil), 5.73(A)(2), “Carriers for Hire”. The court instructed the jury that:
[a] common carrier must exercise a high degree of care to protect its passengers from dangers that are known or reasonably foreseeable. Carriers must use the utmost caution to protect their passengers. The kind of caution that is characteristic of a very careful and prudent person. A carrier must act with the highest possible care consistent with the nature of the undertaking involved. This includes the duty to protect passengers from wrongful acts of co-passengers if the utmost care could have prevented those acts from injuring a passenger.
If a danger was known or reasonably could have been anticipated, the carrier has a duty to protect its passenger from any injury that could be caused by that danger.
At the conclusion of trial, the jury returned a liability verdict against the Defendants and awarded the plaintiff $1,800,000.00. On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that the common-carrier standard of care applied to Defendants and no provision of the NJ TCA immunized Defendants from liability. However, the Appellate Division found that the trial court erred in not submitting to the jury the decision whether to allocate fault between the bottle thrower and NJ Transit/bus driver. It did not disturb the damages award and remanded for a new trial for the jury to determine percentage of fault between the Defendants and non-party bottle thrower.
The matter was subsequently appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
On appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Defendants argued that they were not subject to the heightened standard of care required of common carriers—a standard that the alleged would be irreconcilable with the NJ TCA. Defendants’ contended that their duty is capped at the standard of “ordinary prudence” or “palpable unreasonableness.” Defendants’ also contended that Maison’s negligence action should have been dismissed based on the NJ TCA immunities, emphasizing that public entities and employees “do not have the duty to do everything that might be done.”
On the other hand, Maison argued that apportionment of fault is inappropriate because Defendants’ duty to provide her safe passage on the bus encompassed the obligation to prevent the attack against her. In sum, the primary issues that were presented to the Supreme Court were: (1) whether NJ Transit was subject to heightened negligence standard that were applicable to other common carriers; (2) whether one or more NJ TCA immunities shielded NJ Transit from liability; and (3) whether the non-party bottle thrower should have been included on the verdict sheet for purposes of allocating fault.
Ruling from New Jersey Supreme Court
Ultimately, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the NJ TCA did not lower the standard for public common carriers, and NJ Transit was subject to the same negligence standard governing other common carriers. The approach was supported by decisions in other jurisdictions including California and Texas. The New Jersey Supreme Court stated that:
The TCA directive that liability is to be imposed on public entities and public employees ‘in the same manner and to the same extent as … private individual[s] under like circumstances,’ N.J.S.A. 59:2-2(a) and ‘to the same extent as…private persons[s],’ N.J.S.A. 59:3-1(a), strongly implies that similarly situated public common carriers and private common carriers are not to be treated in a different manner or to a different extent for liability purposes.
In other words, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the duty to provide safe travel to passengers by either private or public transportation entities remained the same. Additionally the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the lower court in rejecting NJ TCA immunities, specifically police protection, N.J.S.A. 59:5-4, failure to enforce law, N.J.S.A. 59:2-4, or good-faith enforcement of law, N.J.S.A. 59:3-3.
Lastly, the Supreme Court found that an allocation of fault was required pursuant to the NJ TCA. The Supreme Court stated that “the plain language of the statute requires an apportionment of fault between tortfeasors, without exception, and regardless of whether a tortfeasor is named as a party in the action.”
At Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens & Cammarota LLP, our law firm has extensive experience with the New Jersey Torts Claim Act and lawsuit against transportation entities. If you’ve been injured by a common carrier, please call our law firm for a free consultation.
NJ Attorney with extensive experience on Bankruptcy Law Real Property Law, Litigation, and Immigration Law. Dedicated Associate Attorney at Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens, & Cammarota LLP.
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