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Another headache for New Jersey's Christie: Class-action lawsuit

As if he did not have enough headaches, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is facing a potential class-action lawsuit arising from the monster traffic jams his aides are accused of creating, although experts question the strength of the case.

A personal injury lawyer from Fort Lee, N.J., filed the case in federal court on behalf of six local residents who missed work or suffered other alleged damages due to the traffic jam last September. Many more people could join the plaintiffs if the court allows the case to become a class action.

The lawsuit was filed on Thursday, a day after New Jersey officials released emails that appeared to show the Republican governor's staff plotting a massive traffic jam in September, seemingly to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie's re-election campaign.

(Read more: Wall Street sees Christie down, but not out)

Rosemarie Arnold, the lawyer behind the lawsuit, said she has received "tons" of emails from residents detailing damages, including panic attacks, caused by the traffic jam.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference on January 9, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton.
Getty Images
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference on January 9, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton.

"I have no political motivation whatsoever," said Arnold, who specializes in cases involving car accidents, defective products and wrongful death. "I'm a Republican. I voted for him."

The lawsuit names Christie, the state of New Jersey, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the governor's aides as defendants.

Some experts were skeptical of the lawsuit's chances.

"Not every dispute ought to be resolved by a lawsuit," said Howard Erichson, a professor of Fordham University School of Law in New York. "The idea of class actions can be very useful, but I'm skeptical of this one."

(Read more: Christie's presidential flight just got stuck in traffic)

Arnold said she was aware some would see the suit as frivolous, but insisted the damages suffered by commuters were serious. "You were gridlocked in every sense of the word," she said. "It was anxiety producing."

The lawsuit purports to represent all "those individuals and business owners who reside, work or own businesses in Northern New Jersey and who were caused to sustain injury, either physical or psychological and/or who were caused to sustain economic damages and loss of liberty as the result of the conduct" of the defendants.

The six current plaintiffs arrived late for work when lanes to the George Washington Bridge heading into New York City were shut down for four days.

The lawsuit was filed on the same day Christie - one of the most prominent U.S. governors and a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate - apologized for the closing.

Monetary damages

The lawsuit asserts a mix of constitutional and tort claims on behalf of local residents and seeks money damages for their injuries, including docked pay for missing work.

Among other things, the lawsuit claims that New Jersey residents were deprived of their freedom of interstate movement under the so-called privileges or immunities clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

(Read more: 'Tour de force' or end of the road for Christie?)

The clause, which became part of the Constitution in 1868, asserts: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

The clause is rarely invoked in class actions, said David Noll, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, but he said it could be made into a successful claim in this case.

While state workers acting in their official capacities are protected from most claims, there is an exception for when they intentionally break the law.

"It's not totally implausible because there seems to have been an intention to keep people from using the bridge," he said.

But the proposed class is likely to be considered too broad for the case to move forward as a class action, say some legal experts. In recent years, courts have made it hard to bring lawsuits on behalf of large numbers of plaintiffs.

Courts generally want to see in class-action cases that the plaintiffs are affected largely in the same way. "But the questions of how that wrongdoing affected each individual driver are going to be hugely varied," Erichson said.

Judges often want to test whether a case can move forward as a class action early on, said Christopher Seeger, a plaintiffs' lawyer who regularly brings class actions.

He said the lawyers in the bridge case would likely have to narrow their class definition to be successful or they would have to pursue individual cases.

"Class actions are designed with this kind of thing in mind, and I love the concept behind the lawsuit," he said. "The problem is they're biting off more they can chew."

Arnold said she disagreed.

"They all took the bridge and they all suffered as result of the Christie administration," she said.

By Reuters

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