Justia Injury Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in New Jersey Supreme Court
Gannon v. American Products, Inc.
Plaintiffs Jamie and Rebecca Gannon, maintained that plaintiff Jamie Gannon developed a form of brain cancer because of a series of polio vaccines he was given as a child. Plaintiffs pursued various forms of relief in both federal and state courts. In the federal court action, they sought relief from the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, contending that the federal government was negligent in permitting the polio vaccine to be sold to the public. Plaintiffs' federal action was dismissed following a partial bench trial, based on the government's motion for judgment on partial findings, and that judgment was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Proceeding on a parallel track, plaintiffs sought relief in New Jersey state courts. In the state court action, they raised product liability claims against defendants American Home Products, Inc., American Cyanamid Company, Lederle Laboratories, and Wyeth-Lederle Vaccines, which they asserted were the entities that had manufactured or distributed the polio vaccine given to plaintiff Jamie Gannon. In the state court litigation, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants based on two grounds: (1) the trial court concluded that plaintiffs lacked sufficient evidence to prove the identity of the manufacturer of the polio vaccine that plaintiff Jamie Gannon was given; (2) the trial court concluded that plaintiffs were collaterally estopped from bringing the cause of action based on the prior judgment entered in federal court. The Appellate Division reversed both aspects of the trial court's judgment and remanded the matter for further discovery and for trial. The panel first concluded that the trial court had utilized an incorrect standard in evaluating the sufficiency of the product identification evidence because it failed to afford plaintiffs the benefit of the inferences to which they were entitled as the non-moving parties in the context of a summary judgment motion. The panel then concluded that there were equitable considerations that militated against granting collateral estoppel effect to the judgment of the federal court, including the status of discovery in the state court matter and the pendency of similar state court litigation involving other plaintiffs. Because the Supreme Court concluded that the Appellate Division’s collateral estoppel analysis was in error, the Court reversed. View "Gannon v. American Products, Inc." on Justia Law
McDougall v. Lamm
In this appeal the issue before the Supreme Court was whether a pet owner should be permitted to recover for emotional distress caused by observing the traumatic death of her pet. Upon review, the Court concluded was no basis in law or public policy to expand the traditionally and intentionally narrow grounds established in "Portee v. Jaffee," (84 N.J. 88 (1980)), which permits compensation for the traumatic loss of carefully defined classes of individuals, to include emotional distress claims arising from observing a pet's death. "Although humans may share an emotional and enduring bond with pets, permitting that bond to support a recovery for emotional distress would require the Court to vastly expand the classes of human relationships that would qualify for Portee damages or to elevate relationships with animals above those shared with other human beings." View "McDougall v. Lamm" on Justia Law
Stancil v. ACE USA
Plaintiff Wade Stancil was injured in 1995 while employed by Orient Originals. He received workers' compensation benefits from his employer's compensation carrier, defendant ACE USA (ACE). In 2006, following a trial, the court of compensation determined that Stancil was totally disabled. In 2007, Stancil filed a motion in the compensation court seeking an order compelling ACE to pay outstanding medical bills. During a hearing on the motion, the compensation judge commented that ACE had a history of failing to make payments when ordered to do so. The compensation judge granted Stancil's motion, warned ACE against any further violation of the order to pay, and awarded Stancil counsel fees. The parties returned to the compensation court for a further proceeding relating to the disputed bills. After finding that the bills identified in the earlier order remained unpaid and that ACE's failure to make payment was a willful and intentional violation of the order, the court issued another order compelling ACE to make immediate payment and again awarding counsel fees. In 2008, Stancil underwent additional surgery and psychiatric treatment. Stancil's physician attributed the need for additional treatment to an earlier treatment delay caused by the carrier's delay in paying medical providers. N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142 (the Act), is the exclusive remedy for the claims pled in the complaint and therefore no damages could be awarded. The trial court granted ACE's motion effectively denying payments for Stancil's 2008 treatment. The Appellate Division affirmed. The issue on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether the employee could sue the carrier for pain and suffering caused by the carrier's delay in paying for medical treatment, prescriptions, and other services. Upon review, the Court concluded that an injured employee does not have a common law right of action against a workers' compensation carrier for pain and suffering caused by the carrier's delay because: (1) the workers' compensation system was designed to provide injured workers with a remedy outside of the ordinary tort or contract remedies cognizable in the Superior Court; (2) in amending the Workers' Compensation Act in 2008, the Legislature rejected a provision that would have given the compensation courts broader permission to authorize a resort to the Superior Court and adopted a remedy that permits compensation courts to act through a contempt power; and (3) allowing a direct common-law cause of action against a carrier would undermine the workers' compensation system by substituting a cause of action that would become the preferred manner of securing relief. View "Stancil v. ACE USA" on Justia Law
Geraldine Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad
In this appeal, the Court determined whether N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 provided immunity to the Plainfield Rescue Squad as an entity, regardless of any negligent delay in transporting a gunshot victim to a hospital. According to the report of the Plaintiff's expert, the Rescue Squad members "wasted over 30 minutes" performing ineffective CPR, depriving the decedent of "any chance of surviving his injury." The decedent needed an immediate transport to the nearby emergency room, where a surgical trauma team could have opened his chest and taken him to the operating room for surgical repair. Had the decedent been transported promptly, he would have had a twenty to thirty percent chance of surviving. The expert concluded that the Squad members engaged in "significant deviations" from usual standards of practice that were significant contributing factors to the decedent's death. Plaintiffs filed a wrongful-death/survival action against the Plainfield Rescue Squad and others. Ultimately, the trial court granted defendants' motions for summary judgment. With respect to the Rescue Squad, the trial court found immunity under both N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 and another statute. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment, determining that only N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 shielded the Squad from civil liability. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court reversed: "[a]lthough N.J.S.A. 26:2K-29 provides immunity to 'officers and members' of a rescue squad for civil damages in rendering 'intermediate life support services in good faith,' the plain language of the statute does not provide immunity to a rescue squad as an entity. Thus, Plainfield Rescue Squad is subject to a civil suit for negligence based on the facts alleged by plaintiffs."
Memorial Properties, LLC v. Zurich American Insurance Co.
Plaintiffs Memorial Properties, LLC (Memorial) and Mount Hebron Cemetery Association (Mt. Hebron) are respectively the manager and owner of Liberty Grove Memorial Gardens. Mt. Hebron was sued in 2007 and 2008 in seven lawsuits in the Superior Court of New Jersey and the Supreme Court of New York by family members of decedents whose remains were sent by funeral directors to Liberty Grove for cremation in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The New Jersey and New York plaintiffs alleged that prior to being sent to Liberty Grove, the decedents’ bodies were unlawfully dissected, and that tissue, bone and organs were removed for commercial sale. The families contended that they did not discover the illegal harvesting scheme until 2006, when law enforcement officials who investigated and prosecuted the perpetrators advised them that their relatives’ body parts had been illegally harvested. Memorial and Mt. Hebron contended that they received the decedents’ remains in closed containers and were unaware that the remains had been tampered with before being turned over to the crematory. Memorial and Mt. Hebron were not prosecuted as a result of the criminal investigation of the illegal harvesting. This appeal arose from Memorial’s and Mt. Hebron’s pursuit of a defense and indemnification with respect to the New Jersey and New York litigation, under two insurance policies. The first policy, issued by Assurance Company of America (Assurance), provided coverage for the year 2003 for claims arising from damage to human remains and bodily injury, including mental anguish. The second, issued by Maryland Casualty Company (Maryland), provided analogous coverage for the year 2006, but contained an "improper handling" exclusionary clause, barring coverage for bodily injury or property damage arising from specified acts and omissions including "[f]ailure to bury, cremate or properly dispose of a 'deceased body.'" In 2008, Memorial and Mt. Hebron demanded that Assurance and Maryland defend and indemnify them. Assurance declined coverage on the ground that the occurrences were outside of the policy period, invoking plaintiffs' claims that they learned of the harvesting scheme in 2006. Maryland declined coverage, citing the "improper handling" exclusionary clause in its 2006 policy. Memorial and Mt. Hebron filed a declaratory judgment action on May 14, 2008, naming as defendants Assurance, Maryland and Zurich North American Insurance Company (Zurich), and demanding defense and indemnification. Assurance and Maryland cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion filed by Memorial and Mt. Hebron, but granted defendant insurers' cross-motion for summary judgment, identifying the year 2006 as the time frame of the "occurrence" in the two cases for which the insureds sought coverage. The Appellate Division affirmed both of the trial court’s orders granting the summary judgment motions filed by Assurance and Maryland. After its review, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that neither the Assurance policy nor the Maryland policy required the insurer to defend or indemnify Memorial and Mt. Hebron for claims asserted in the New Jersey and New York litigation. The Court affirmed the Appellate Division's ruling.
Van Dunk v. Reckson Associates Realty Corp.
Plaintiff Kenneth Van Dunk and his wife filed this suit in the Law Division after he suffered serious injuries in a trench collapse at a construction site workplace. Following discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment to the employer-defendants Reckson Associates Realty Corporation and James Construction Company, Inc. Based on its assessment of the totality of circumstances, the court concluded that plaintiff did not demonstrate an intentional wrong within the meaning of the Act, notwithstanding that the employer was issued a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "willful violation" citation as a result of the incident. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants, and returned the matter to the trial court. The Supreme Court granted the Defendants' petition for certification seeking review of that judgment. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the defendants' conduct fell short of an intentional wrong creating a substantial certainty of bodily injury or death. Therefore the workers' compensation statutory bar against common-law tor actions precluded this suit, and the appellate court's ruling was reversed.
W.J.A. v. D.A.
In 1998, Dave Adams (fictitious name) filed a complaint against his uncle Wayne Anderson (fictitious name) alleging Anderson had sexually assaulted him at various times when Adams was a minor. Adams sought compensatory and punitive damages, interest, and costs of suit. Anderson answered, denying Adams's allegations and raising the statute of limitations as a defense. He also counterclaimed for frivolous litigation, defamation (both libel and slander), infliction of emotional distress, and violations of his "statutory and constitutional rights." In 2000, a "Lopez" hearing was held to determine whether to grant Anderson's motion for summary judgment. The Court dismissed Adams' complaint because it was filed nine years after the "normal" statute of limitations would have run without sufficient justification. Anderson obtained a jury award of damages and interest, and found that Adams' statements constituted false and defamatory statements. No appeal ensued. Subsequently, Adams declared bankruptcy to avoid paying the damages award against him. The bankruptcy court determined the judgment was non-dischargeable. Anderson obtained a contempt order against Adams for failing to comply with post-judgment discovery requests. While fighting the contempt charge, Adams created a website on which he recounted his claims of sexual abuse by Anderson, including direct quotes from the trial transcript and allegations of perjury and intimidation of a witness. Anderson's attorney asked Adams's attorney to shut down the site because it contained "per se defamatory statements" along with the same allegations made in the earlier lawsuit. He also threatened to file a defamation suit if Adams did not close the website. Adams received notification of the letter on February 16 and closed the website on February 21. In March 2007, Anderson filed a new complaint alleging that Adams's website contained defamatory statements. Adams failed to answer and Anderson moved for the entry of default, which was granted. Thereafter, he moved for the entry of default judgment. With that motion pending, in May 2008, Adams entered a special appearance challenging service of process, seeking to vacate the entry of default, and requesting the court to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction. The judge granted the motion to vacate the default, but denied the motion to dismiss. In December 2008, Anderson moved for summary judgment. In January 2009, the judge denied the motion, despite finding that Adams's statements were defamatory per se because they accused Anderson of having committed a criminal offense and of engaging in serious sexual misconduct. The judge concluded that he could not permit the jury to evaluate the claim without any evidence of cognizable damages. The issue before the Supreme Court concerned the vitality of the doctrine of presumed damages: if defamatory, constituted libel rather than slander, and whether it is an open question of whether "the doctrine of presumed damages should apply to claims made by a private-figure plaintiff when no public interest is implicated." Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that where a plaintiff does not proffer evidence of actual damage to reputation, the doctrine of presumed damages permits him to survive a motion for summary judgment to obtain nominal damages, thus vindicating his good name.
Seals v. Morris County
The issues in this appeal were whether, pursuant to "Contey v. New Jersey Bell Telephone Co.," 136 N.J. 582 (1994) or N.J.S.A. 48:3-17.1, an electric utility company is entitled to immunity for any negligence in its placement of a pole along a public roadway; and whether a county is entitled to immunity for any negligence on its part pursuant to the Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3. Early one winter morning, plaintiff John Seals was driving his pickup truck and descended a curved, snow-covered road in Washington Township that is owned and maintained by Morris County. Due to the road conditions and despite applying the brakes, plaintiff could not negotiate the curve and the vehicle struck an electric utility pole located several feet from the roadway. He alleged that the County negligently maintained a dangerous roadway condition and that the electric utility company negligently placed the pole. The trial court denied defendants' motions for summary judgment. The court distinguished "Contey," in which the Supreme Court held that a telephone company that placed its pole in compliance with a municipal ordinance owed no duty to a motorist. The trial court reasoned that because the County did not set standards for placing electric poles, and was not statutorily required to do so, the utility is subject to a negligence standard; and although "Contey" did not impose a duty on the County to conduct a safety study, it was not shielded by the TCA because it took "no action" to regulate placement of electric poles. The Appellate Division reversed the denial of summary judgment for JCP&L and vacated the denial of summary judgment for the County. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that neither "Contey" nor N.J.S.A. 48:3-17.1 conferred immunity on the utility for its negligence, if any, in placing the electric pole. If a governmental entity directs a utility where to place a pole (as in "Contey") the utility is immune from liability. When there is no governmental dictate, ordinary negligence standards apply. A utility will be liable if it places or maintains an electric pole where there is an unreasonable and unnecessary danger to travelers upon the highway. Whether the County is entitled to TCA immunity was remanded for further proceedings.
Gere v. Louis
Defendant Frank A. Louis, Esq. represented Plaintiff Julia Gere in connection with Plaintiff's divorce from Peter Ricker. Pursuant to the property settlement agreement, Plaintiff had a six month window, which ended in October 2000, to decide how she wished to proceed with respect to the parties' ancillary real estate investments. Plaintiff's understanding was that she would retain a one-half interest in those assets unless she affirmatively advised Ricker within six months that she did not wish to do so. One of those assets was Navesink Partners, which owned both the real estate and business operations of a marina. Based on Louis's interpretation of Plaintiff’s wishes after a discussion with her friend, Louis sent a letter dated October 11, 2000, to Ricker's attorney stating, "this will confirm that except for the Marina, Mrs. Ricker wishes to maintain one-half interest in all other properties." Subsequently, a dispute arose in which Ricker maintained that Plaintiff had waived any interest in Navesink Partners, and Plaintiff contended that she did not waive her interest, that she wanted to continue her ownership interest in the marina's real estate, and that she was entitled to fair value for her interest in the marina's business operations. Plaintiff ultimately sued Louis for malpractice over the purported waiver of her interests in the marina property. The issue before the Supreme Court on appeal was whether "Puder v. Buechel" (183 N.J. 428 (2005)) barred Plaintiff's malpractice action against her former attorney and whether that claim was time-barred. The appellate division affirmed the trial court decision that Plaintiff indeed was time barred, and that she voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement regarding the marina property which she testified was "fair and reasonable." Upon review, the Supreme Court found Plaintiff's case was materially distinguishable from "Puder," and that her legal malpractice claim was not barred.
Durando v. The Nutley Sun
In 2005, "The Record," a newspaper owned by Defendant North Jersey Media Group, published an article about an SEC complaint. The headline of the article read: "3 N.J. men accused in $9M stock scam." Neither the SEC complaint nor the article suggested that Plaintiffs Ronald Durando and Gustave Dotoli were arrested. The North Jersey Media Group also owns Defendant "The Nutley Sun," which received permission to reprint the Record article about Plaintiffs. In 2008, the Sun prepared the article for publication in its December 8 edition (a promotional issue circulated to 2500 non-subscribers in addition to the weekly's regular subscribers), but wrote a new headline for the article: "Local men charged in stock scheme." The day after publication, Plaintiffs' attorney sent an email to The Sun pointing out that his clients had not been "arrested," and demanded a retraction. The North Jersey Media Group gave approval for the filing of a retraction, and indeed one was published in boldface and large print on the front page of The Nutley Sun's December 22 edition. This edition was not circulated to the 2500 non-subscribers who received the December 8 edition with the erroneous teaser. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging libel against the Sun and North Jersey Media Group. The trial court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants on all claims and dismissed the complaint. The court determined that there was not "sufficient evidence from which a jury could clearly and convincingly conclude that any . . . of the defendants acted with actual malice." In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding no 'clear and convincing' evidence of actual malice to warrant a jury trial on defamation or false light. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed: "[a]lthough this case unquestionably involves sloppy journalism, the careless acts of a harried editor, the summary-judgment record before the Court cannot support a finding by clear and convincing evidence that the editor knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth published the false front-page teaser."