Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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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

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In 2001, plaintiff Doreen Hayes was diagnosed with a syrinx in her thoracic spine. Plaintiff’s last MRI, prior to the accident at issue in this case, was taken in May 2007. In 2008, plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle operated by her mother, defendant Barbara Delamotte. After the 2008 accident, plaintiff underwent spinal fusion surgery on plaintiff’s C6-7 and C7-T1 vertebrae. Plaintiff thereafter filed a complaint claiming that her mother and the unidentified vehicle caused the 2008 accident. Before trial, the defense retained Dr. Arthur Vasen, an orthopedic surgeon, to examine plaintiff and review her medical records, including cervical MRIs taken before and after the 2008 accident. The defense took Dr. Vasen’s videotaped deposition for use at trial rather than call him to give in-court testimony. At trial, plaintiff moved to have portions of Dr. Vasen’s deposition referring to reports of non-testifying doctors stricken from the video. The trial court denied the motion. At trial, defendants presented Dr. Vasen’s videotaped deposition. The trial court gave the jury a limiting instruction regarding the use of non-testifying experts’ opinions. Dr. Vasen testified that there were no differences between the MRIs taken before the accident in 2007 and after the accident in 2008. However, the films that Dr. Vasen showed in the tape were both labeled 2008. At the conclusion of the parties’ evidence, plaintiff’s counsel requested the opportunity to replay Dr. Vasen’s testimony during summation, and comment on the testimony, to demonstrate to the jury that the doctor compared MRI films marked with the same date. The trial court upheld defendant’s objection, and provided an additional limiting instruction as to the reports of non-testifying experts. Ultimately, the jury determined that plaintiff’s mother was solely responsible for the 2008 accident but found that plaintiff did not sustain a permanent injury proximately caused by that accident. Plaintiff was granted a new trial. At the second trial, the only issue presented was whether plaintiff sustained a permanent injury as a result of the 2008 accident. Dr. Vasen’s videotaped deposition was retaken for use at the second trial; plaintiff once again moved in limine to bar Dr. Vasen’s testimony about the findings of non-testifying doctors. This time, the court granted plaintiff’s motion. After the second trial, the jury found that plaintiff sustained a permanent injury proximately caused by the 2008 accident and awarded her $250,000 in damages. The Appellate Division found that the trial court improperly granted a new trial and reinstated the jury’s verdict in favor of defendant from the first trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the jury’s verdict in favor of plaintiff following the second trial. Because the trial court’s error in preventing plaintiff from replaying a portion of the deposition during summation at the first trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice, the trial court properly granted plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. View "Hayes v. Delamotte" on Justia Law

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T.T., individually and on behalf of her three-year-old daughter, A.T., filed this medical malpractice action seeking damages from a hospital and several medical professionals for injuries caused during the child’s birth.1 The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants and dismissed the action with prejudice because plaintiff failed to serve a timely affidavit of merit. The Appellate Division affirmed, rejecting plaintiff’s argument that the circumstances should have supported entry of a dismissal without prejudice under Rule 4:37-1(b). After review, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment to defendants and remanded for further proceedings. The Court determined that a combination of circumstances (not the least of which was the failure to schedule a pretrial conference to address the affidavit of merit requirement as New Jersey case law directed), warranted allowing the untimely affidavit to be filed. "The equities militate in favor of permitting a facially meritorious action to proceed here, particularly because any prejudice to defendants may be addressed through costs imposed by the trial court. We decline to approve recourse to a voluntary dismissal without prejudice under Rule 4:37-1(b) as an appropriate avenue for addressing failures to comply with the affidavit of merit requirement, including when a minor is involved. Rather, we will require modification of the Judiciary’s electronic filing and notification case management system to ensure that, going forward, necessary and expected conferences are scheduled to enhance parties’ compliance with requirements under the Affidavit of Merit Statute (AMS or the statute), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-26 to -29, in furtherance of the statutory policy goals." View "A.T. v. Cohen" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose out of the tragic death of eleven-year-old Abiah Jones after she fell from a ride in an amusement park. The issues this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s consideration was: (1) the circumstances under which a defendant is barred from asserting contribution and common-law indemnification claims against a public entity for purposes of the Tort Claims Act; (2) whether the jury should be permitted to allocate a percentage of fault to a public entity pursuant to the Comparative Negligence Act and the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law; and (3) the effect of any such allocation of fault on plaintiffs recovery of damages if the jury returns a verdict in their favor. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s determination. The plain language of N.J.S.A.59:8-8 required parties seeking to assert a claim against a public entity to serve a notice of claim within ninety days of the date on which the cause of action accrues. Because the Morey defendants did not serve a timely notice of claim on the Association, their third-party contribution and common-law indemnification claims against the Association are barred. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the trial court should have afforded defendants an opportunity to present evidence of negligence, that negligence was a proximate cause of Abiah Jones’s death. If defendants present prima facie evidence, the trial court should instruct the jury to determine whether any fault should be allocated in accordance with N.J.S.A.2A:15-5.2. Should the jury find negligence was a proximate cause of Abiah Jones’s death, the trial court should mold any judgment entered in plaintiffs’ favor pursuant to N.J.S.A.2A:15-5.2(d) to reduce the damages awarded to plaintiffs by the percentage of fault that the jury allocates. View "Jones v. Morey Pier, Inc." on Justia Law