The New Jersey Tort Claims Act (the “TCA” or the “Act”) provides that “a public entity is not liable for an injury” caused by an act or omission “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by this act.” N.J.S.A. 59:2-1a. Under the TCA, immunity is the rule and liability is the exception. The TCA defines public entities to include counties and municipalities, and therefore townships also fall within the scope of the TCA. N.J.S.A. 59:1-3.
One relevant exception to the general rule of immunity covers dangerous conditions on public property. N.J.S.A. 59:4-2. That section provides:
A public entity is liable for injury caused by a condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:
(a) a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or
(b) a public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under section 59:4-3 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.
Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose liability upon a public entity for a dangerous condition of its public property if the action the entity took to protect against the condition or the failure to take such action was not palpably unreasonable.
Chapter 4 of the Act, specifically N.J.S.A. 59:4-2, imposes liability on a public entity for injury caused by a condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, and that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury incurred. The plaintiff must also establish that the public entity was responsible either through its employees for creating the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice of the condition sufficiently before the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition, provided that the entity will not be liable if the action taken to protect against the condition was not “palpably unreasonable.” N.J.S.A. 59:4-1(a) defines “dangerous condition” as “a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when such property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.”
The TCA defines “public property” as property that is “owned or controlled by the public entity.” N.J.S.A. 59:4-1c. However, liability is not limited to an event occurring on public property. In fact, our Supreme Court has concluded that public entities may be liable for creating a dangerous condition on private property that is under the “control” of the public entities.
Nevertheless, whether a dangerous condition exists is ultimately a question for the jury. In order for plaintiffs to be successful at trial, they must not only prove that public property created a dangerous condition, but that the condition created a foreseeable risk of the kind of injury that occurred, that the condition proximately caused the injury and that the action the public entities took to protect against the dangerous condition or the failure to take such action was palpably unreasonable. The term “palpably unreasonable” connotes “behavior that is patently unacceptable under any given circumstance.” A dangerous condition under the TCA relates to the physical condition of the property itself and not to activities on the property. See Roe ex rel. M.J. v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 317 N.J. Super. 72 (App. Div. 1998), certif. denied, 160 N.J. 89 (1999) (held that a permanently bolted-open gate on New Jersey Transit’s property constituted a dangerous condition under N.J.S.A. 59:4-2 because it invited the public to enter a high-crime area).