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New Jersey County Not Entitled to Defense or Indemnification by the State in Suit Alleging Exposure of Jail Detainees

by Douglas Ankney

In an unpublished decision, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, held that Salem County is entitled to neither defense nor indemnification by the state in a class-action lawsuit brought by former jail detainees who allege the county intentionally required them to expose their breasts and genitals.

On May 17, 2017, four former prisoners filed suit in the Law Division, alleging that while they were held at the Salem County Jail they were classified as “suicidal” without any reason. That classification required them to wear a “turtle suit,” which is held together with Velcro straps that are so worn the suits remain open. One female plaintiff stated her breasts and genitals were exposed, and a camera in her cell transmitted images of her to other locations throughout the jail. The plaintiffs also alleged that a window in their cells permitted male staff and prisoners to observe their nudity, and they were subjected to strip searches – including body cavity searches – two and three times per day. The lawsuit claimed it was routine policy for the jail to classify detainees as suicidal without any reason or penological objective.

The county asked the Attorney General to provide defense and indemnification by the state, citing the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 thru -12.3 (Act) and Wright v. State, 169 N.J. 422 (NJ 2001) for support. The Attorney General issued a written decision denying the request, and the county appealed.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court observed that the Act provides for the defense and indemnification of any current or former state employee sued in any action.

Since the detainees did not name any employees, much less state employees, in their lawsuit, the Act did not grant defense or indemnification for the county. And in Wright, the defendants were county prosecutors whose duties of enforcing criminal law qualified them as state employees because they were performing a function typically and traditionally performed by the state. Conversely, the policies of the jail were administrative in nature and the jail was operated by the county sheriff, whose office is part of the county government. Consequently, neither the Act nor Wright supported the county’s position.

The Appellate Division therefore affirmed the decision of the Attorney General. See: Stevenson v. Department of Law and Public Safety, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2015 (NJ App. Div. 2019). 


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Related legal case

Stevenson v. Department of Law and Public Safety