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Bergen v. Koppenal

Supreme Court of New Jersey
Oct 7, 1968
246 A.2d 442 (N.J. 1968)

Summary

holding that high-level policy decisions made by government entities should not be reviewed by a jury

Summary of this case from Banks v. Gunderson

Opinion

Argued September 10, 1968 —

Decided October 7, 1968.

Appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Mr. Robert R. Witt argued the cause for appellant ( Mr. Stephen C. Carton, of counsel; Messrs. Carton, Nary, Witt and Arvanitis, attorneys).

Mr. Leslie S. Kohn argued the cause for plaintiffs-respondents.


Plaintiffs sued Wall Township (Township) and Virginia Koppenal for injuries sustained in a collision between plaintiffs' car and the Koppenal car. At the close of plaintiffs' case the trial court granted the Township's motion to dismiss. The jury returned a verdict against Mrs. Koppenal. Upon plaintiffs' appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the judgment in favor of the Township and ordered a retrial as to it. Bergen v. Koppenal, 97 N.J. Super. 265 ( App. Div. 1967). We granted the Township's petition for certification. 51 N.J. 183 (1968).

The facts appear in the Appellate Division's opinion. Briefly, at 6:16 A.M. a township police officer noted that an overhead traffic light had broken loose and turned so that its signal was misdirected. The road was not the Township's although within its borders. It was a state highway, and the lighting system was installed and maintained by the State Highway Department. The police officer radioed his headquarters, which however could not reach the Highway Department until it opened at 8:00 A.M. At 8:45 A.M. Mrs. Koppenal proceeded from a stopped position when the errant light flashed green, although two other lights facing her continued to show red. She collided with plaintiffs' car which properly was moving on green. As we have said, the jury found Mrs. Koppenal was negligent.

The difficulty arises from the fact that neither the highway nor the lights belonged to the Township or were under its possessory control. Cf. Hoy v. Capelli, 48 N.J. 81 , 85-86 (1966). The question is whether for tort purposes the Township was nonetheless under a duty to take over traffic control when its officer learned of the situation we have described. We have never held that every police failure to act may be translated into a dollar liability. Although we affirm the action of the Appellate Division, we should not be thought to embrace so large a proposition. Rather we think it fair to say that a duty may be found if a police officer learns of an emergent road condition which is likely not to be observed by a motorist and which holds an unusual risk of injury. In such circumstances the municipality must act reasonably to guard the traveler until the appropriate authority, here the State's own agencies, can take over. In such an inquiry, the municipality may prove the police did not act because of competing demands upon the police force. If such proof is in the case, the jury should be instructed that, with respect to the issue of competing demands, the jury may not disagree with the police deployment judgment unless it is palpably unreasonable. In permitting a jury to deal with the issue of competing demands, we should emphasize that we are not modifying the rule of Hoy v. Capelli, supra, and Amelchenko v. Borough of Freehold, 42 N.J. 541 (1964), that high-level policy decisions may not be reviewed at all by a jury. We are here dealing with a situation in which because of the special circumstances stated above the municipality could be found to have a duty to act and as to which the municipality may have omitted to act because of other demands upon its police.

With the foregoing modification, the judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.

For affirmance — Chief Justice WEINTRAUB and Justices FRANCIS, HALL, SCHETTINO and HANEMAN — 5.

For reversal — None.


Summaries of

Bergen v. Koppenal

Supreme Court of New Jersey
Oct 7, 1968
246 A.2d 442 (N.J. 1968)

holding that high-level policy decisions made by government entities should not be reviewed by a jury

Summary of this case from Banks v. Gunderson

holding that the police were not immune for failing to direct traffic after they had learned that a directional signal was misdirecting traffic

Summary of this case from Campbell v. Campbell

upholding duty owed by local officer to warn of emergent road conditions on State road if condition unlikely to be discovered by motorist

Summary of this case from Trull v. Town of Conway

In Bergen * * *, the malfunction in the signal was actively deceptive: a green light appeared at both junctions of the intersection.

Summary of this case from Civalier by Civalier v. Estate of Trancucci

In Bergen, the Court held that a township may be liable for a broken traffic control device on a state-designated highway if a police officer learns of a hazardous and emergent condition on the state highway which was not likely to be observed by a motorist and which presents an unusual risk of injury. A municipality may avoid liability by proving that the police failed to act because of competing demands upon the police force and such inaction was not palpably unreasonable.

Summary of this case from Mindala v. American Motors Corp.

In Bergen v. Koppenal, supra, 52 N.J. at 480, the common law predecessor of N.J.S.A. 59:4-4, this Court noted that a municipality had a duty to warn of a road condition that is likely not to be observed by a motorist and presents an unusual risk of injury even if the municipality was not responsible for creating the dangerous condition.

Summary of this case from Rochinsky v. State of N.J., Dept. of Transp

In Koppenal, the Court held that a police officer may have a duty to act if the officer "learns of an emergent road condition which is likely not to be observed by a motorist and which holds an unusual risk of injury."

Summary of this case from Mignano v. Jim Sullivan, Inc.

In Bergen, a township police officer noted that an overhead traffic light had broken loose and had turned so that its signal was misdirected.

Summary of this case from DeBonis v. Orange Quarry Co.

In Bergen v. Koppenal, 52 N.J. 478 (1968), a municipality which had knowledge of a broken traffic light was held to possible liability for failure to act in an emergent situation.

Summary of this case from Marley v. Borough of Palmyra

In Bergen, however, the malfunction in the signal was actively deceptive: a green light appeared at both junctions of the intersection.

Summary of this case from Lytle v. Newark

In Bergen, defendant municipality had neither ownership nor possessory control of an overhead traffic light on a state highway or of the highway itself.

Summary of this case from Danow v. Penn Central Transportation Co.

In Koppenal a township officer noted that an overhead traffic light on a state highway had broken loose and turned, so that its signal was misdirected.

Summary of this case from National Spring Co. v. Pierpont Associates, Inc.
Case details for

Bergen v. Koppenal

Case Details

Full title:MARY BERGEN AND JOHN BERGEN, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS, v. VIRGINIA KOPPENAL…

Court:Supreme Court of New Jersey

Date published: Oct 7, 1968

Citations

246 A.2d 442 (N.J. 1968)
246 A.2d 442

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