New Jersey Supreme Court rules 'extraordinary circumstances' justify late filing of suit over turnpike deaths

By Gabriel Neves | Jan 24, 2019

TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – The New Jersey Supreme Court has reinstated a widow's complaint in a wrongful death suit over a fatal accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that claimed the lives of her husband and minor child.

Justice Lee Solomon, on the bench of the New Jersey Supreme Court, issued a 26-page ruling on Jan. 14, reversing the Superior Court, Appellate Division's decision in the lawsuit filed by Pamela O’Donnell, individually and as administratrix ad proequendum for the estates of Timothy O'Donnell and of her minor daughter B.O., against the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA).

The Supreme Court reversed the previous decision, which now allows O'Donnell a late filing of her notice of claim, considering that "under the limited circumstances of this case, extraordinary circumstances existed justifying O’Donnell’s late filing."

"In the rare case, such as the one before us, where the claimant sets forth adequate proofs indicating that the totality of facts and circumstances are extraordinary, we find it consistent with the Tort Claims Act, its legislative history, our precedent, and the interests of justice to allow the claimant to pursue his or her claims against the public entity," Solomon wrote.

O'Donnell sued NJTA over the 2016 death of her husband and daughter as a result of an accident that took place at the turnpike.

As stated in the ruling, "on a February afternoon, Timothy O’Donnell was driving westbound on the Turnpike with his 5-year-old daughter B.O. in the rear passenger seat," when the vehicle they were in was "violently rear-ended by a vehicle traveling erratically and at a high rate of speed," throwing Timothy's car "onto the opposite side of the Turnpike and into oncoming traffic, where it was struck head-on by an ambulance," causing their deaths.

On May 17, 2016, O'Donnell's attorney served the Bureau of Risk Management of the state of New Jersey with a notice of claim, but the counsel did not serve NJTA with that notice.

"However, the attorney did not serve a notice of claim on the NJTA as is required by the Tort Claims Act. The filed notice of claim described the fatal accident and indicated that it occurred on the afternoon of Feb. 22, 2016, on the Turnpike near the 14C Interchange. In the notice, O’Donnell named the NJTA as the responsible state agency and listed its address. O’Donnell alleged that the NJTA’s negligence caused the deaths of Timothy and B.O. Specifically, the notice stated that Timothy’s vehicle would not have propelled to the opposite side of the turnpike had the NJTA installed safety barriers to separate opposing lanes of traffic," the ruling said.

New counsel was retained and an amended notice of claim was served to NJTA 197 days after the crash. The NJTA filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, claiming the notice was filed after the 90 days defined by law, but the trial court denied it.

NJTA appealed to the Superior Court, which reversed the decision, claiming the trial court abused its discretion when it allowed the late filing. O'Donnell then filed a petition for certification with the high court.

New Jersey Supreme Court case number 080735

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