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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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New Jersey Cleared as to Hurricane Drowning

(CN) - A woman whose daughter drowned in her car after floodgates were opened in anticipation of Hurricane Irene cannot sue New Jersey, a federal judge ruled.

Celena Sylvestri, 20, had been driving in Salem County, N.J., on Aug. 28, 2011, when floodwaters reportedly swept her car off the road and killed her.

Kathryn Van Orden, the woman's mother, sued New Jersey, its state police, and Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Dam Safety and Flood Control; the Borough of Woodstown and its police department; Salem County and its sheriff; Pilesgrove Township; and unnamed individuals and companies.

The federal complaint alleged that the defendants had opened the floodgates of the Veterans Memorial Lake Dam without notifying drivers or closing the road.

Without notice, Sylvestri had no reason to expect potentially dangerous conditions, according to the lawsuit.

In a motion to dismiss, the state officials said that sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment bars the District Court from hearing private parties' claims for money damages to be paid from public funds.

They also argued that the court should dismiss the Section 1983 claim because New Jersey and its agencies are not "persons."

U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle dismissed the claims on Dec. 9, noting that Van Orden had not opposed the defendants' motion.

"'A foundational premise of the federal system is that states, as sovereigns, are immune from suits for damages, save as they elect to waive that defense,'" Simandle wrote, quoting a recent ruling in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md.

The judge later added: "There is no indication in this case that the state has waived immunity or that any applicable federal statute abrogates sovereign immunity. For these reasons, and with consent of plaintiff, the court will dismiss all claims against the state defendants.

Simandle also agreed to dismiss the municipal defendants' cross-claim for contribution from the state under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, relying on the 1985 decision in Cnty. of Oneida. v. Oneida Indian Nation.

"Here, like in Oneida, the court has been 'referred to no evidence that the state has waived its constitutional immunity to suit in federal court on this question,'" Simandle wrote. "Therefore, sovereign immunity bars any cross-claim for contribution against the state defendants."

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