Gilhooley v. County of Union
|Opinion of the Court
LONG, J., writing for a majority Court.
The issue before the Court is whether a particular injury constitutes the "permanent loss of a bodily function" with-in the meaning of the Tort Claims Act (the Act) so as to justify an award of pain and suffering damages.
In 1994, Catherine Gilhooley (Gilhooley) was employed as a clinical social worker for the United States department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Gilhooley supervised the VA's methadone maintenance clinic in Newark. As part of her responsibilities, she accompanied nurses who administered methadone to incarcerated veterans.
On December 31, 1994, Gilhooley accompanied a VA nurse to the Union County Jail to administer methadone. As she was leaving the building, Gilhooley slipped and fell, suffering a fractured right knee cap and a broken nose. Gilhooley required "open reduction internal fixation" surgery on her knee, wherein wires and pins were inserted into her knee to re-establish its integrity. Gilhooley was in the hospital for five days recuperating from the surgery. She then wore a "long-leg rehab brace" for two-and-a-half months. Gilhooley also has about a four-to-five-inch scar running across her right knee.
Gilhooley was out of work for a little over three months, returning on April 2, 1995. She has returned to work in her full capacity; however, she claims to experience constant stiffness and pain in her knee. The injury to her nose required no surgery of treatment, although she complains of a nasal drip.
On December 23, 1996, Gilhooley filed a complaint alleging negligence against the County of Union and the Union County Sheriff's Department (collectively, Union County). Union County filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that Gilhooley's injuries did not overcome the threshold required under the Act, which prohibits recovery of pain and suffering unless the injured party can demonstrate either permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement, or dismemberment.
The trial court granted Union's motion, but that determination was not based on Gilhooley's claim that the injury to her knee constituted a permanent loss of a bodily function. That claim was not addressed by the court. Instead, the trial court concluded that Gilhooley's scar did not constitute a permanent disfigurement.
The Appellate Division affirmed the grant of summary judgment, finding that the objective medical evidence presented in the record did not support a claim for loss of bodily function. Rather, the Appellate Division determined that Gilhooley suffered only a temporary loss of bodily function, evidenced by her return to work at full capacity and the fact that she needed no further treatment or medication for either injury. In addition, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's finding that the scar did not constitute a permanent disfigurement under the Act.
The Supreme Court granted Gilhooley's petition for certification.
HELD: The injury to Catherine Gilhooley's knee, requiring the insertion of wires and pins to enable her knee to function, is an aggravated case within the contemplation of the Legislature when it enacted the "permanent loss of bodily function" language, and this injury falls squarely within the "substantial" requirement of Brooks. Therefore, Gilhooley's knee injury overcame the pain and suffering threshold of the Tort Claims Act.
- The theme of the Act is immunity for public entities with liability as the exception. Even where liability exists, the Act sets forth limitations on recovery. A claimant should not be reimbursed for non-objective types of damages, such as pain and suffering, except in aggravated circumstances-cases involving permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement, or dismemberment. This limitation reflects a policy judgment based on the economic burdens facing public entities. (Pp. 6-7)
- In order to overcome the pain and suffering threshold under the Act, a plaintiff must satisfy a two-pronged standard by proving : (1) an objective permanent injury (temporary injuries, no matter how painful and debilitating are not recoverable); and (2) a permanent loss of a bodily function that is substantial. (Pp. 7-11)
- Gilhooley's reconstructed knee is properly characterized as a permanent injury resulting in a substantial loss of bodily function. The accident caused her to forever lose the normal use of her knee, which could not function without permanent pins and wires to reestablish its integrity. There is no doubt that the Legislature intended that pain and suffering damages could be awarded to those whose ability to use their bodily parts efficiently is restored through pins, wires, or any other artificial mechanism or device. The Court is satisfied that the Legislature intended to include within the notion of aggravated cases those involving permanent injury resulting in a permanent loss of a normal bodily function, even if modern medicine can supply replacement parts to mimic the natural function.
- In order to be considered a permanent disfigurement, a scar must impair or injure the beauty, symmetry, or appearance of a person, rendering the bearer unsightly, misshapen, or imperfect. Here, the trial court failed to apply the appropriate summary judgment standard. The court erroneously weighed the evidence and applied its own personal standard to decide the merits rather than enabling the jury to decide the merits of a claim of permanent disfigurement. Based on the trial court's own description of the scar, it cannot be concluded that it is so insubstantial that no rational fact-finder could conclude that it impairs Gilhooley's appearance, rendering her unsightly, misshapen, or imperfect. (Pp. 14-18)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICE VERNIERO, dissenting, is of the view that the Court has taken a once-integrated standard and divides it into two prongs. In so doing, the Court places insufficient emphasis on the loss of bodily function and thereby alters the focus of the analysis in a manner inconsistent with the Act. According to Justice Verniero, the focus under both the statute and Brooks should be on the loss of bodily function, not on the injury. Viewed from that perspective, Gilhooley's claim is insufficient because her bodily function (the use of her knees) has been fully restored. It is the role of the Legislature to lower the bar of the Act. Until the Legislature does so, the Act's high threshold should be enforced as it was in Brooks.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES O'HERN, STEIN, COLEMAN and LAVECCHIA join in JUSTICE LONG'S opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO filed a separate dissenting opinion.