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New Jersey Appellate Court Rules Government Entity Weather-Related Tort Immunity Does Not Apply in Motor Vehicle Accident Where Its Driver Was Negligent

Oct 10, 2021 - News by Timothy M. O’Donnell

On September 16, 2021, the New Jersey Appellate Division reached a decision in the matter of Mercado v. Krimmell, 2021 WL 4204944. This decision will likely have a strong impact on personal injury matters arising from motor vehicle accidents where government owned and operated motor vehicles are involved and inclement weather contributed to the accident.

Plaintiff Elena Mercado’s car was rear-ended by a New Jersey Transit bus while it was snowing. Plaintiff suffered bodily injuries as a result of the motor vehicle accident and brought suit against NJ Transit for negligence. NJ Transit filed a summary judgment motion, asserting that it was immune from the claim under in N.J.S.A. 59:4-7, which provides that “[n]either a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused solely by the effect on the use of streets and highways of weather conditions.” The Trial Court agreed with NJ Transit that Plaintiff’s claim was barred and granted summary judgment dismissing the claim against NJ Transit.

The parties agreed that it was snowing pretty hard and there was snow and ice on the road at the time the motor vehicle accident occurred. NJ Transit’s driver alleged that she was traveling at only five miles per hour with her foot on the brake as she approached the intersection where Plaintiff’s vehicle was stopped, but that she couldn’t stop the bus do to the snow and ice on the road.  Plaintiff alleged that the NJ Transit bus driver was driving too fast for the weather and road conditions and the bus driver’s negligence caused the motor vehicle accident. NJ Transit’s Further, Plaintiff had evidence to support her claim that the bus driver was driving too fast based upon the fact that NJ Transit’s own onboard video system recorded the bus traveling at nineteen miles per hour and already rapidly decelerating when the video was triggered by the driver’s act of hitting her brakes. Additionally, a representative for NJ Transit testified that the video recording system only records when triggering events occur, such as the driver doing “something wrong.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate Division found that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the bus sliding into Plaintiff’s vehicle was unavoidable or was the result of the bus driver’s negligent operation of the bus. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of NJ Transit was inappropriate. The weather immunity provision does not shield NJ Transit from liability simply because weather was a contributing factor to the motor vehicle accident if there is evidence to support a claim of negligence eon behalf of NJ Transit’s driver.

The Appellate Division’s opinion is unpublished and this ruling may be taken up by the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, the ruling in Mercado provides plaintiffs and co-defendants in motor vehicle accident cases involving vehicles owned and operated by government entities with a strong argument to apportion liability to the government entity and their drivers for negligence despite weather conditions contributing to the collision.