Appellate Division Upholds Broad Plan or Design Immunity in Suit Against Public Entity

The Appellate Division recently upheld a Law Division decision granting summary judgment to a New Jersey municipality, as well as its engineers and general contractor, based on plan or design immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA”). In Yulis v. Twp. of Teaneck, No. A-4016-13T4, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1807 (App. Div. Aug. 1, 2016), plaintiff alleged that he sustained personal injuries when he tripped and fell on a mountable curb at a pedestrian plaza in Teaneck.  Plaintiff further alleged that defendants were negligent in the plan or design of the mountable curb.

The issue on appeal was whether summary judgment was properly granted in favor of the defendants under the TCA. Plaintiff contended that defendants failed to meet their burden of proof that the degree of the sloped mountable curb was specifically considered and sufficiently addressed in the design plans approved by Teaneck.  His expert opined that the degree of the slope was a “palpably unreasonable” dangerous condition.

Under the TCA, a public entity is insulated from liability related to the design of public property, “where such plan or design has been approved in advance of the construction or improvement by the Legislature or governing body of a public entity.” Significantly, “plan or design immunity does not depend upon any showing of the reasonableness of the design, nor can it be lost by changed circumstances.”  Birchwood Lakes Colony Club v. Medford Lakes, 90 N.J. 582 (1982). Additionally, if plan or design immunity attaches to the public work, then the immunity is extended to private contractors through derivative immunity. See Rodriguez v. N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority, 193 N.J. Super. 39 (App. Div. 1983).

The Appellate Division held that summary judgment was properly granted. Discovery revealed that the mountable curb was set forth in several plans, diagrams, correspondence and hand-outs reviewed by Teaneck when it approved the project. Additionally, the Court found that there was no heightened degree of detail required of the plans to show the Teaneck contemplated, considered and approved the specific slope degree of the curb. Accordingly, Teaneck demonstrated an entitlement to summary judgment, as a matter of law, based on plan or design immunity established under the TCA; and, its engineers and general contractors were likewise entitled to summary judgment through derivative immunity.

Importantly, this decision highlights the protections afforded to public entities, and their private contractors, under the TCA.  A public entity merely has to show that it approved the plan or design of the feature that is causally-related to the accident, in order for immunity to attach to the public entity and its contractors that carried out the plan or design.  Additionally, the Court rejected plaintiff’s contention that immunity under the TCA was inapplicable because the public entity did not contemplate the specific slope degree of the curb, which demonstrated the broad immunity afforded to public entities under the TCA.