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Officials discuss tort claims filed after teens drowned in Bayonne

The legal action is a necessary step before filing a lawsuit

Chu Ming Zheng and Jack Jiang. Photo courtesy of Eliass Nid-Youssef.

Although they’re usually mum on legal matters, Bayonne officials briefly discussed two such matters at a recent meeting. The topics were on the agenda under communications for the July 20 meeting of the City Council, however, there was no discussion of them at that meeting.

But the council did have a brief discussion during the July 13 caucus meeting.

Alleged wrongful death by drowning 

The council has received two notices of tort claims for $50 million each alleging wrongful death resulting from drowning at the Lincoln Community School swimming pool. Bayonne High School junior Jack Jiang, 16, and his 19-year-old brother Chu Ming Zheng, a graduate from the high school who was attending the University of Miami, drowned in the pool in June despite three lifeguards on duty.

While the lifeguards and arriving first responders performed life-saving measures as soon as 8:23 p.m. the evening of June 8, according to police, the brothers were pronounced dead after being transported to Bayonne Medical Center.

Since then, the family has filed two tort claims, the precursor to filing a lawsuit. The estates of Chu Ming Zheng and Jack Jiang are being represented by attorneys Daryl Zaslow and Barry Eichen of Eichen Crutchlow Zaslow law firm in Edison. Co-counsel is Victoria Zheng Wong of the QLW Law Group based in Flushing, New York.

The lawyers representing the family told the Bayonne Community News that the drownings were “100 percent preventable.” They are conducting their own investigation into the incident ahead of the lawsuit.

The brief conversation at the meeting was sparked by Second Ward City Councilwoman Jacqueline Weimmer at the caucus meeting. She asked who else was noticed in the suit. 

“Was the city the only one?” Weimmer asked.  

“No, there were several,” City Clerk Madelene Medina said.  

The notice of the tort claims was sent to the state, the county, the city, the city’s Department of Recreation, the Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools John Niesz, Lincoln Community School, the school pool which is formally known as the Joseph J. Skutnick pool, and Lincoln Community School Principal Keith Makowski.

‘Seeing what sticks’

In response, Law Director Jay Coffey clarified the situation at the caucus meeting. 

“Most of the time, the notice of claim against any government entity, including a school system, it is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit,” Coffey said. “My guess is the Board of Education has been served, us, maybe the county of Hudson.” 

Coffey said it is typical that these claims encompass a number of entities for the potential lawsuit later on. 

“It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” Coffey said. “So I guess that there were several entities including in those claims including the state of New Jersey.” 

The incident is being investigated by the Police Department, the Board of Education, the school district’s insurance carrier, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in addition to the family’s lawyers. While the investigation remains ongoing, the community has rallied around the family.

A GoFundMe fundraiser webpage has exceeded it’s goal of $25,000 and is still accepting donations at: gofundme.com/f/chu-ming-jacks-family?qid=16e0222b1fedc4ca38f024f0bc38eb39. Additionally, the Board of Education had collected gift cards for the family in the wake of the tragedy from June 9 to June 13.

Since the tragedy, the board held a moment of silence with the student representative to the board later offering solemn words in regards to the fallen brothers. A moment of silence was also held for Zheng and Jiang at the June meeting of the City Council. On top of that, students and friends gathered to remember Zheng and Jiang with a vigil at Stephen Gregg Hudson County Park.

City named in suit over chemical fire

The city was also named in a lawsuit by former North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue firefighter Arnold Landi against Alden Leeds, Inc. after he was injured during a fire at the premises. Landi alleges he was “advised that it was safe to remove his Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus despite the fact that the fire was in a location housing chemicals” during a fire in 2019 at the Alden Leeds location at 55 Jacobus Avenue in Kearny.

Landi manned a ladder on site for approximately five hours, during which he “repeatedly asked the Jersey City HAZMAT Team about the safety of breathing in smoke and was repeatedly assured it was not necessary to wear a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus.” However, he was later was taken to the hospital on the evening of the incident due to chemical pneumonitis, which he alleges occurred due to the fire which was allegedly sparked from improperly stored chemicals and negligent staff, the suit states.

Bayonne and other municipalities and entities including Kearny, Jersey City, and Newark among others, are named because “they are the government entities responsible for inspecting, securing, testing, and managing the fire site not limited to ensuring the safety of firefighters, monitoring chemicals in the air, monitoring the air quality, and advising the firefighters what gear should be used and worn while at the fire sites,” according to the lawsuit. The cause of the fire was never determined.

“This was from a fire in Kearny,” Medina said at the July 13 caucus meeting. “We’ve been named in the lawsuit.”

This lawsuit will proceed in Hudson County Superior Court, while the drowning lawsuit has yet to be officially filed.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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