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School Zones are Not Special

School zones are generally considered special areas where people exercise particular care because of the need to protect children within the school zone. Contrary to these social norms, the Appellate Division in Patrick by Lint v. City of Elizabeth, No. A-2792-15T1, 2017 WL 1436113 (App. Div. Apr. 24, 2017), held that a school zone is not entitled to special protection for tort claims against public entities.

New Jersey has granted school zones some special protection. For example, there are heightened penalties for committing certain offenses in a school zone, including driving while intoxicated, distributing or possessing a controlled substance, or speeding. However, as outlined in Patrick, immunity for public entities currently outweighs any special protection to school zones for tort liability.

In Patrick, a student was stuck by a car while crossing the street near a municipal park, one block from a public elementary school. The student’s guardian brought suit against the City of Elizabeth (the “City”) and the Board of Education (the “Board”) because he claimed that the area was a dangerous condition and the City and the Board should have taken action to prevent this injury to the student.

Under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA”), public entities such as municipalities and boards of education are immune from liability for tort unless there is a specific statute that imposes liability. Here, the plaintiff attempted to hold the City and the Board liable because (1) the area was a dangerous condition that defendants ignored, and (2) the City failed to place proper signage in the area.

As to the first claim, plaintiff alleged that there were a high number of accidents in that area that should have put the defendants on notice of the safety concerns. However, the court found that there were no similar accidents in the area to provide notice of the condition. Therefore, it was not a dangerous condition that could impose liability on the City or the Board.

Plaintiff then attempted to claim that defendants should have placed additional signs such as “school zone” or “children crossing” in the area. However, the TCA explicitly grants immunity for injuries caused by a lack of “ordinary” traffic signals or signs. Plaintiff argued that a school zone requires a higher standard of care, and that the immunity that generally attaches should not apply. Again, the court rejected that argument.

The Appellate Division concluded that due to the lack of explicit direction from the Legislature, a heightened standard for school zones cannot be created by the court. The court pointed to specific examples, such as driving while intoxicated and distributing or possessing a controlled substance, where the Legislature has explicitly imposed a higher standard of care for the school zone.

This decision may suggest to the Legislature that a change is necessary. However, the policies for granting immunity to public entities are well settled. A public entity should not be responsible for every tort that occurs within its boundaries, particularly when it has taken reasonable efforts to avoid such torts. Although the decision in this case seemed harsh, history and important public policies have demonstrated that it is necessary to grant these immunities to public entities. Otherwise, they would be riddled with lawsuits, and unable to serve their much needed public function.

The immunities granted to public entities leave a gap, where public entities are not liable for torts, but more protection is needed for individuals. This may require that parents and other advocates take action to fill the gap, through petitions for more signage, more awareness of the issues, or pursuing liability against the individual tortfeasor.