According to a recent ruling from the New Jersey Appellate Division, the Attorney General’s Office does not have the responsibility to defend a lawsuit filed in connection with a car accident involving two investigators from the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and an official county vehicle.
According to court documents, Jose Ramirez and Antonio Rua left their office in June of 2011, after the end of their regular shifts at midnight. Ramirez, a homicide lieutenant for the prosecutor’s office, drove himself and Rua, a homicide detective, in his Ford Crown Victoria, which is owned by the county. The two men ate in Newark and then traveled to a cigar lounge in Belleville around 1 a.m. to celebrate a homicide case they had recently closed.
The documents then say that the men left the lounge around 2:30 a.m. with an open bottle of rum. They were unable to find another place to eat, so Ramirez began to drive to Rua’s home. Their vehicle collided with another car on Route 22 West in Union.
According to a statement given later, Ramirez said that he swerved after being cut off by another car, and that he saw two people leaving the scene of the crash. Ramirez was tested for intoxication, and his blood alcohol content was recorded at 0.07, which is just below the legal limit of 0.08. He said in his statement that he drank two rum and Cokes while at the lounge.
Rua sued Ramirez for negligence, seeking damages for his injuries and medical expenses. Ramirez sought coverage from his personal insurance provider and from Essex County. However, the personal insurance company stated that it was not obligated to cover Ramirez’s accident because he was driving a county vehicle.
In the ensuing controversy, both sides debated who should be responsible in the accident, as Ramirez is an employee of the county and was driving a county car. When the case reached the Appellate Division, the assistant attorney general had already declared that Ramirez was off-duty and had not been performing any "classic” actions related to his job.
The attorney general also stated that because of this, Ramirez could not be indemnified against Rua’s negligence suit and that the county is responsible for insuring any vehicles it owns, including the one Ramirez was driving.
The Appellate Division judges ruled that they “must view the activity of driving a county vehicle in light of the purpose of the journey,” meaning that Ramirez was not performing a law enhancement role at the time of the accident. With this determination, the judges found that the county had no responsibility to defend Ramirez’s actions at the time of the accident because he was off-duty and not acting in his role.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, we represent anyone who has been involved in a drunk driving-related accident, or anyone who has been charged with negligent activity while in an official vehicle or in his or her official capacity. For more information regarding intoxication and accident responsibility, contact a New Jersey DUI attorney at HCK today.