Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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Plaintiff Frank Caraballo joined the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) as a police officer in February 1973 and became a detective in 1977. While on duty in August 1999, Caraballo sustained injuries to his hands, back, knees, and legs during a motor vehicle accident. The injuries to his knees were severe and became chronic. As a result of those injuries, Caraballo fluctuated between full duty, light duty, and paid sick leave throughout the remainder of his tenure on the police force. In August 2001, Caraballo filed a workers’ compensation claim related to the 1999 accident. He also underwent anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery on his left knee. Over the next several years, physicians evaluated Caraballo to determine whether he required bilateral knee replacement surgery. On March 4, 2013, more than six-and-a-half years after he requested that the JCPD authorize knee replacement surgery, Caraballo settled his workers’ compensation claim. Shortly thereafter, he filed a complaint against the JCPD asserting a cause of action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Specifically, Caraballo alleged that the JCPD failed to authorize his knee replacement surgery and, therefore, failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. The trial court granted the JCPD’s motion for summary judgment, finding that even if the knee surgery could have qualified as a reasonable accommodation, the record contained several medical evaluations showing that Caraballo was unable to carry out the responsibilities of a police officer with or without the surgery. The trial court also found that Caraballo could not bring a viable LAD claim because he failed to enforce his right to have knee surgery in the workers’ compensation court. The Appellate Division reversed. According to the panel, the record contained numerous material factual disputes -- including why Caraballo retired without receiving knee surgery -- that should have been presented to a jury. The Appellate Division also concluded that Caraballo established a prima facie failure-to-accommodate case under the LAD. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding Caraballo’s failure to utilize the Act’s administrative remedies to obtain knee replacement surgery precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. In addition, Caraballo’s total knee replacement surgery cannot qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD. View "Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Department" on Justia Law

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In a consolidated appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered one central issue: whether the New Jersey Legislature intended to deviate from its highly regulated no-fault system of first-party self-insurance to cover medical expenses arising from automobile accidents when it amended the statutory scheme to allow an insured to elect smaller amounts of personal injury protection (PIP) under a standard policy. Each plaintiff in this appeal was injured in a car accident. Each was insured under a standard policy with insurance that provided for $15,000 in PIP coverage instead of the default amount of $250,000. Neither was able to sustain a claim for bodily injury (noneconomic loss) due to each policy’s limitation-on-lawsuit option. Each sued for outstanding medical bills in excess of their elected PIP coverage ($28,000 and $10,000, respectively). The trial courts ruled against plaintiffs in each matter and prohibited plaintiffs from admitting evidence of their medical expenses that exceeded their $15,000 PIP limits. The Appellate Division consolidated the cases on appeal, and, in a published opinion, reversed both trial court orders. After its review, the Supreme Court could not concluded there was evidence of a clear intention on the part of the Legislature to deviate from the carefully constructed no-fault first-party PIP system of regulated coverage of contained medical expenses and return to fault-based suits consisting solely of economic damages claims for medical expenses in excess of an elected lesser amount of available PIP coverage. "Unless the Legislature makes such an intent clearly known, the Court will not assume that such a change was intended by the Legislature through its amendments to the no-fault system in the Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act." View "Haines v. Taft" on Justia Law

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Seventeen-year veteran volunteer firefighter Jennifer Kocanowski was injured in the line of duty. She applied and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether volunteer firefighters had to be employed to be eligible for temporary disability benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. The Appellate Division affirmed the compensation judge’s determination that pre-injury outside employment was a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters, holding that there "first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages." The Supreme Court reversed: "While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s language is unclear, its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act." View "Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Maureen McDaid brought a negligence action against defendants Aztec West Condominium Association; Preferred Management, Inc., the Association’s management company; and Bergen Hydraulic Elevator, the elevator-maintenance provider. The complaint alleged that McDaid suffered serious injuries when she was exiting the elevator and the elevator doors unexpectedly and “repeatedly” closed on her. At the end of the discovery period, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and dismissed McDaid’s complaint. The court rejected the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, finding that the malfunctioning of elevator doors is not an occurrence that “ordinarily bespeaks negligence.” More specifically, the court stated that McDaid “did not refute the contention that the electric eye, being a mechanical device, is subject to failure from time to time totally unrelated to negligence.” The New Jersey Supreme Court found that because the malfunctioning of elevator doors that close on a passenger bespeaks negligence, giving rise to a res ipsa inference, the trial court improvidently granted summary judgment. View "McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Josh Willner was injured while climbing a rock wall owned by his employer, Ivy League Day Camp. Willner sued the camp and the manufacturers of the wall and parts contained in the wall, Vertical Reality, Inc. (Vertical Reality), and ASCO Numatics (Numatics), respectively, alleging strict products liability claims and negligence. Throughout trial, evidence was submitted regarding Numatics’ conduct both before and after the incident. Prior to summation, the court dismissed the design defect and failure to warn claims, allowing Willner to proceed only on his strict liability claim of manufacturing defect against Numatics. Vertical Reality’s counsel underscored Numatics’ alleged malfeasance. Numatics objected and moved for a mistrial. The trial court denied the motion, but instructed the jury to disregard counsel’s comments concerning Numatics’ conduct. Numatics thereafter requested an instruction to the jury regarding the applicability of Numatics’ conduct in the context of Willner’s manufacturing defect claim. The judge denied that proposal and instead provided an instruction that substantially mirrored Model Jury Charges (Civil), 5.40B, “Manufacturing Defect” (2009). The jury found: Vertical Reality’s rock wall was designed defectively; Vertical Reality provided inadequate warnings; and Numatics’ product was manufactured defectively, all proximate causes of Willner’s fall. The jury awarded Willner monetary damages, allocating seventy and thirty percent liability to Vertical Reality and Numatics, respectively. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's jury instruction under a different standard of review than was used by the Appellate Division: the judge’s actions were harmless error. The Court reversed the imposition of sanctions, holding it would have been unfair to impose sanctions "in a case where the only means for a party to avoid sanctions would be to pay an amount greater than the jury’s verdict against that party, without advance notice of that consequence." View "Willner v. Vertical Reality, Inc." on Justia Law

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Accutane was a prescription medication developed by defendants and approved by the FDA to treat recalcitrant nodular acne. Accutane’s alleged role as a cause of gastrointestinal disease ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits against defendants. The case before the New Jersey Supreme Court here involved over two thousand plaintiffs who alleged they developed Crohn’s disease as a result of taking Accutane. In the years since many earlier Accutane cases were decided, epidemiological studies were published, all of which concluded that Accutane was not causally associated with the development of Crohn’s disease. Defendants filed a motion seeking a hearing on the association between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s consideration reduced to the admissibility of scientific evidence under the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. Plaintiffs claimed that a causal connection existed between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The Supreme Court discerned little distinction between “Daubert’s” principles regarding expert testimony and New Jersey’s, and Daubert’s factors for assessing the reliability of expert testimony “will aid New Jersey trial courts in their role as the gatekeeper of scientific expert testimony in civil cases.” The Court reconciled the standard under N.J.R.E. 702, and relatedly N.J.R.E. 703, with the federal Daubert standard to incorporate its factors for civil cases. Here, the trial court properly excluded plaintiffs’ experts’ testimony. Moreover, the Court reaffirmed that the abuse of discretion standard must be applied by an appellate court assessing whether a trial court has properly admitted or excluded expert scientific testimony in a civil case. In this matter, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its evidential ruling and, therefore, the Appellate Division erred in reversing the trial court’s exclusion of the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts. View "In re: Accutane Litigation" on Justia Law

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At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was two determinations of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer’s claim that he was “mentally . . . incapacitated” by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). In Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Board and the Appellate Division panel rejected Officer Christopher Mount’s claim that he was permanently disabled because he witnessed at close range the incineration of three young victims in an explosion after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. The Supreme Court held Mount had proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that met the standard of Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division panel’s judgment and remanded to the panel to decide Mount’s claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident. In Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Supreme Court considered the Division’s decision reversing the Board’s denial of accidental disability benefits to Detective Gerardo Martinez, a municipal police department’s hostage negotiator. Martinez claimed that his permanent disability resulted from psychological injuries sustained when a lengthy hostage negotiation ended with the shooting death of the hostage-taker, as he and Martinez spoke by cellphone. The Supreme Court held Martinez did not demonstrate the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected under the Richardson test, and therefore he was not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. View "Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System" on Justia Law

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This case arose from a car accident in Florence Township, New Jersey. The car driven by plaintiff Mark Krzykalski was in the left lane traveling north, and the car driven by defendant David Tindall was directly behind plaintiff’s car. As the left-lane traffic proceeded through an intersection, a vehicle in the right lane driven by John Doe unexpectedly made a left turn, cutting off the cars in the left lane. Plaintiff was able to stop his car without striking the vehicle in front of him. Defendant, however, was unable to stop in time and rear-ended plaintiff’s vehicle. This case was brought under the Comparative Negligence Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.8 (CNA), and the question presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration centered on whether a jury should be asked to apportion fault between the named party defendant and a known but unidentified defendant (John Doe). The Court concluded the jury properly apportioned fault between the named party defendant Tindall and the John Doe defendant because plaintiff and defendant acknowledged the role of John Doe in the accident, plaintiff’s Uninsured Motorist (UM) carrier was aware of the litigation, and plaintiff had “fair and timely” notice that defendant would assert that John Doe was the cause of the accident. View "Krzykalski v. Tindall" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Robert Ferrante was involved in an automobile accident in 2006 where the other motorist caused the collision. Without informing his auto insurance carrier, defendant New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group (“NJM”), Ferrante initiated a negligence lawsuit against the tortfeasor, who had a liability limit of $100,000 on his insurance policy. The parties participated in mandatory arbitration, which set Ferrante’s damages at $90,000. Again, without informing NJM and allowing it to exercise its subrogation rights, Ferrante rejected the award, and sought a trial de novo. He also refused a $50,000 settlement offer without notifying NJM. Prior to the trial, Ferrante entered into a high-low agreement with the tortfeasor, which set the range of damages between $25,000 and $100,000, notwithstanding a jury verdict. Ferrante did not communicate this agreement or the trial itself to NJM, either. Following the trial, a jury awarded plaintiff $200,000 in damages, but the Law Division entered a judgment of $100,000 based on the high-low agreement. For the first time in 2011, Ferrante sent NJM a letter required by Longworth v. Van Houten, 223 N.J. Super. 174 (App. Div. 1988), stating that he was seeking UIM benefits. In the letter, Ferrante wrote that the other motorist was willing to settle for $100,000. However, Ferrante failed to mention the arbitration, high-low agreement, completed trial, or jury verdict. Based on this information, NJM told Ferrante to accept the offer. NJM and Ferrante proceeded to litigation over UIM coverage; only during a pretrial discovery exchange did Ferrante finally disclose his past dealings. NJM moved to dismiss the complaint, and the Law Division granted the motion, finding that Ferrante violated Longworth by not notifying NJM of any of the proceedings with the other motorist. On appeal, a split panel of the Appellate Division reversed. The majority held that because the trial court did not consider if NJM was actually prejudiced by the lack of notice, a remand was needed to determine if NJM sustained any prejudice. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed: due to the complete absence of notice by Ferrante to NJM at any point over years of litigation, including the lack of notice about the high-low agreement or completed jury trial during the UIM process, NJM could refuse to pay the UIM benefits. View "Ferrante v. New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group" on Justia Law

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The case stemmed from a 2010 fire in the City of Paterson (City) that consumed a multi-unit home owned by Florence Brown, taking the lives of four residents and injuring several others as they made their escape. During the lengthy proceedings below, a question arose of whether the City and its electrical inspector, Robert Bierals—alleged by the plaintiffs to be at least partially at fault for the fire, were entitled to qualified or absolute immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA). During discovery, Bierals and the City moved for summary judgment on immunity grounds. The trial court ruled that Bierals and the City were entitled only to qualified immunity and denied their motions. After the close of discovery, Bierals and the City again moved for summary judgment. A different judge granted the motion, ruling that they were entitled to absolute immunity. Because the critical causative conduct in this case was a failure to enforce the law, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded Bierals was entitled to absolute immunity. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division and entered judgment in favor of Bierals and the City. View "Lee v. Brown" on Justia Law