Notice of Tort Claim Against a County Can Validly be Served on the County Clerk

Bryant v. County of Cumberland, 472 N.J. Super. 626 (App. Div. 2022). In what may be the shortest published opinion of the current Term, Judge Fisher today addressed this “matter of first impression”: whether “service of a Tort Claims Act notice of claim on a county is sufficient when sent to the county clerk rather than the board of county commissioners.” The Law Division found the notice insufficient, but the Appellate Division reversed that ruling.

Judge Fisher observed that “N.J.S.A. 59:8-7 is specific about how to serve the State, calling for its submission to either the Attorney General or ‘the department or agency involved in the alleged wrongful act or omission.’ But, as for ‘local public entit[ies],’ defined as including all public bodies except the State, N.J.S.A. 59:8-2, the Act requires only that the notice of claim be filed with ‘that entity,’ N.J.S.A. 59:8-7, or ‘the entity,’ N.J.S.A. 59:8-10, without further elaboration. And so, there is nothing in the Tort Claims Act that would identify for a claimant the particular county office or officer to be served with the required notice of claim; in fact, the Act does not even suggest there is just one county office or officer that fits the bill.”

Because nothing in the Tort Claims Act suggested that the only proper body on which to serve a notice of tort claim was the County’s Board of Commissioners, the Appellate Division found it appropriate to “promote[ ] fairness to all parties” and avoid making the notice of claim provisions “a trap for the unwary.” Judge Fisher said that “there is a certain logic to serving a county by serving its county clerk – just as service of a notice on a municipality would logically be forwarded to the municipal clerk.” And there would be no prejudice to the County, since “on receipt of a notice of claim, the county clerk would undoubtedly understand that it should be forwarded to the official the particular county charged with opening a file, contacting county counsel, and starting an investigation.”

The panel suggested that this issue is one “best cleared up by the Legislature.” Until then, though, today’s opinion answers the question presented by saying that a notice of tort claim can properly be served on either the County Clerk or the Board of Commissioners.