NJ Driverless Fire Truck Crash Suit Reinstated

A personal injury suit filed by a woman injured when a driverless engine smashed into her office building, has been reinstated by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. Berta Abreu Flores’ claims for pain and suffering against North Hudson Regional Fire Rescue had been dismissed last year because her injuries were deemed not to meet the requirements of “permanency” of New Jersey Tort Claims Act.

The facts as explained by the Appellate Division’s decision are as follows:

  • On March 29, 2018, a fire engine owned by defendant North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue accidently shifted into drive during a training exercise at a fire station in Union City.
  • Driverless, the fire engine crossed the road and struck the front of a residence opposite the firehouse. The impact damaged the building’s support columns.
  • Plaintiff Berta Abreu Flores, a sixty-five-year-old woman who had been working on the first floor of the building, was injured by the collision.
  • At the time of the incident, plaintiff operated a tax preparation business out of the first floor of the residence.
  • She had arrived at her office around 8:30 a.m. that morning and was working at her desk that faced the front of the building.
  • Plaintiff was speaking with one of her employees, facing toward the employee and away from the front of the building, when they heard “a loud bang” that plaintiff thought “was a bomb.”
  • When the employee saw the wall was coming down, she yanked plaintiff from her chair by her right arm.
  • After being pulled from her desk, plaintiff immediately began to have pain on the left side of her head.
  • She noticed fragments of glass in her hair and a lump on her head.
  • She was taken by responding EMS personnel to a local emergency room, where she reported pain in her left side, head, and shoulder, and dizziness.
  • She was released that same day from the hospital.
  • Plaintiff continued to experience pain in the weeks following the accident.
  • However, she managed to continue working for the next two-and-a-half weeks until the end of the tax season.
  • She has not resumed working since that time.

At issue in the case is a rather unusual requirement in the NJ Tort Claims Act that limits personal injury “pain and suffering” claims against public entities. The key language states:

  • N.J. Stat. § 59:9-2
  • d. No damages shall be awarded against a public entity or public employee for pain and suffering resulting from any injury; provided, however, that this limitation on the recovery of damages for pain and suffering shall not apply in cases of permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or dismemberment where the medical treatment expenses are in excess of $3,600.00.

The trial court concluded Flores’ injuries did not result in the permanent loss of a bodily function, a permanent disfigurement, or a dismemberment in ant of her three alleged injurie: shoulder injury, hearing loss, or loss of balance. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court on the shoulder injury and hearing loss, but took a different tact on the loss of balance. The court concluded that a jury should determine whether Flores’ loss of balance was indeed substantial and permanent.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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