Justice Wainer Apter’s First Opinion

W.S. v. Hildreth, ___ N.J. ___ (2023). This unanimous opinion was Justice Wainer Apter’s first. As is traditional for a Justice’s first-ever opinion, it was unanimous.

As summarized here, this case involved whether plaintiff’s case was timely filed, and whether a notice of tort claim under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA”) was required. The answer centered on the effect of 2019 amendments to the TCA and the Child Sexual Abuse Act (“CSAA”), which the Appellate Division held to have rendered plaintiff’s suit timely and obviated the need for a notice of tort claim.

The Supreme Court affirmed. Justice Wainer Apter ruled that “the plain meaning of the relevant statutes dictates that child sexual abuse survivors who file a CSAA complaint against a public entity after December 1, 2019 — even if their cause of action accrued much earlier — need not file a TCA notice of claim before filing suit.”

Defendants asserted that the Appellate Division’s ruling effectively made the statutory amendments retroactive. Justice Wainer Apter did not agree. “Contrary to defendants’ assertions, the Appellate Division did not ‘breathe[] retroactive application into N.J.S.A. 59:8-3(b)’ or ‘improperly resuscitate[]’ W.S.’s claim. Instead, the court afforded N.J.S.A. 59:8-3(b) prospective effect and correctly applied the statutory text to W.S.’s complaint. As the Appellate Division found, ‘as of December 1, 2019, there was no longer any precondition for a plaintiff alleging sexual abuse as a minor by a public employee or public employer to file a notice of claim under the TCA before filing suit, regardless of when the cause of action accrued.’ W.S., 470 N.J. Super. at 70.”

Defendants made other arguments, but they all failed. Ultimately, Justice Wainer Apter observed that defendants’ position would create absurd results. Under defendants’ view, “the Legislature would have intentionally resuscitated child sexual abuse claims against public entities or employees that accrued many years before by retroactively extending the statute of limitations until the victim reached the age of fifty-five through N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2a(a)(1), only for the claim to be immediately dismissed because the victim did not file a notice of claim within ninety days of the cause of action originally accruing. That would be senseless.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division and allowed the case to go forward.