Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Plaintiffs, the heirs and executor of the estate of Viviana Ruscitto, filed complaints seeking compensatory and punitive damages on numerous counts after Ruscitto’s death from leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that cannot be reliably diagnosed preoperatively, following the hysterectomy she underwent at defendant Valley Hospital with the use of a power morcellation device. Ruscitto sought treatment for uterine fibroids from defendant Howard Jones, a gynecologic surgeon at the hospital with whom Ruscitto met four times before she underwent surgery. Approximately six months before Ruscitto’s surgery, the FDA issued a Safety Communication discouraging the use of power morcellation. Valley Hospital administrators and Dr. Jones exchanged emails about the continued use of power morcellation. They considered factors including that “without the morcellator these cases would be open instead of laparoscopic, which “increases morbidity”; the fact that “the numbers at Valley” did not support the “1 sarcoma in 350 operations” number suggested by the FDA; and the role of informed consent. A “power morcellation group” was convened to draft an informed consent form. A form was prepared and approved by the legal department but was never implemented or used prior to Ruscitto’s surgery. One month after her surgery, the FDA issued an updated communication explicitly warning against the use of power morcellators in the majority of cases. Valley Hospital then discontinued use of the power morcellation device. Plaintiffs brought claims against several defendants, including Dr. Jones and the Valley Hospital administrators, and defendants sought partial summary judgment dismissing the punitive damages claim. The trial court denied the motions, and the Appellate Division denied leave to appeal. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded a reasonable jury could not find by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages were warranted based on the facts of this case, and partial summary should have been granted. View "Rivera v. Valley Hospital, Inc." on Justia Law

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The issue this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on an exclusionary clause in a commercial general liability insurance policy issued by Admiral Insurance Company (Admiral) to Richfield Window Coverings, LLC (Richfield). Richfield sold window coverage products, including blinds, to national retailers like Home Depot and provided retailers with machines to cut the blinds to meet the specifications of the retailers’ customers. Colleen Lorito, an employee of a Home Depot located in Nassau County, was injured while operating the blind cutting machine. She and her husband filed a civil action against Richfield, asserting claims for product liability, breach of warranty, and loss of spousal services. Admiral denied any obligation to defend or indemnify, asserting the claims were not covered under the policy based on the Designated New York Counties Exclusion of the insurance policy. Richfield filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to compel Admiral to defend it in the Lorito case and, if necessary, indemnify it against any monetary damages awarded to the plaintiffs. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of Admiral. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that “Richfield’s limited activities and operations have no causal relationship to the causes of action or allegations.” The Supreme Court found that the policy’s broad and unambiguous language made clear that a causal relationship was not required in order for the exclusionary clause to apply; rather, any claim “in any way connected with” the insured’s operations or activities in a county identified in the exclusionary clause was not covered under the policy. Richfield’s operations in an excluded county were alleged to be connected with the injuries for which recovery was sought, so the exclusion applied. Admiral had no duty to defend a claim that it is not contractually obligated to indemnify. View "Norman International, Inc. v. Admiral Insurance Company " on Justia Law

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In June 2011, Thomasenia Fowler, as administrator of her husband Willis Edenfield’s estate, initiated a wrongful death/product liability action against Union Carbide, a manufacturer and supplier of asbestos that Edenfield handled as a daily part of his 40-year job at an adhesive manufacturing plant (the Bloomfield Plant). In 1968, Union Carbide began placing a warning on its asbestos bags. In compliance with an emergency standard imposed by OSHA, the company changed the warning in 1972. The change notwithstanding, an in-house staff-member of Union Carbide notified the company that its warning inadequately addressed the lethal dangers of asbestos exposure, but Union Carbide declined to upgrade its label. Union Carbide presented evidence that it periodically provided information and various safety warnings about its asbestos products to Edenfield’s employers and requested that the information and warnings be made available to the employees. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a manufacturer or supplier that puts inadequate warnings on its asbestos products used in the workplace can fulfill its duty to warn by disseminating adequate information to the employer with the intention that such information will reach the workers using those products. The Court also considered whether, in charging on medical causation in this mesothelioma case, the trial court was required to give the frequency, regularity, and proximity language in Sholtis v. American Cyanamid Co., 238 N.J. Super. 8, 28-29 (App. Div. 1989), rather than the substantial factor test in the Model Civil Charge, as modified by the court. As to the duty to warn, the Court held that an asbestos manufacturer or supplier that places inadequate warnings on asbestos bags used in the workplace has breached its duty to the worker, regardless of whether it provides the employer with the correct information, which is reasonably intended to reach its employees. As to medical causation, the trial court’s modified Model Jury Charge on proximate cause sufficiently guided the jury. View "Fowler v. Akzo Nobel Chemicals, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ann Samolyk sustained neurological and cognitive injuries when she entered a lagoon in Forked River to rescue her neighbors’ dog, which had fallen or jumped into the water. Samolyk’s husband filed a civil action against defendants, alleging they were liable under the rescue doctrine by negligently allowing their dog to fall or jump into the water, prompting Samolyk to attempt to save the dog. Neither the Law Division nor the Appellate Division found the doctrine applicable. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review reduced to whether the common law rescue doctrine could be expanded to permit plaintiffs to recover damages for injuries sustained as a proximate result of attempting to rescue defendants’ dog. After reviewing the "noble principles that infuse the public policy underpinning this cause of action," the Supreme Court declined to consider property, in whatever form, to be equally entitled to the unique value and protection bestowed on a human life. The Court nevertheless expanded the rescue doctrine to include acts that appear to be intended to protect property but were in fact reasonable measures ultimately intended to protect a human life. Judgment was affirmed. View "Samolyk v. Berthe" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Aleice Jeter filed a negligence claim against Sam’s Club after sustaining injuries when she slipped on one or more grapes. Plaintiff stated that she fell while walking away from the checkout area, “halfway past” the fruit and vegetable aisle. Sam’s Club asserted several defenses, including lack of actual or constructive notice of the hazardous condition -- loose grapes on the floor. The trial court, after acknowledging that no party had moved for summary judgment, sua sponte conducted an N.J.R.E. 104(a) hearing to determine whether the "mode of operation" rule applied and, if not, whether plaintiff could provide some evidence of actual or constructive notice. The court agreed with Sam’s Club that the mode of operation rule did not apply, then proceeded to analyze the case under traditional negligence principles that require actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition -- grapes on the floor. Finding that there was no evidence as to “how long this particular grape [was] on the floor,” the court held that plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving actual or constructive notice and dismissed the case with prejudice. Finding no reversible error in the trial court's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "Jeter v. Sam's Club" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court in this case was whether a plaintiff had to submit an affidavit of merit (AOM) in support of a vicarious liability claim against a licensed health care facility based on the alleged negligent conduct of an employee who was not a “licensed person” under the AOM statute. Plaintiff Troy Haviland brought a claim against defendant Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, Inc., alleging, as relevant here, that an unnamed radiology technician employed by defendant negligently performed his radiological imaging examination, causing serious injuries. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to serve an AOM, which was granted. The Appellate Division reversed, determining that an AOM was not required when a plaintiff’s claim against a licensed person was limited solely to vicarious liability, based upon the alleged negligence of an employee who was not a licensed person under the AOM statute. To this the Supreme Court concurred: the AOM statute did not require submission of an AOM to support a vicarious liability claim against a licensed health care facility based only on the conduct of its non-licensed employee. View "Haviland v. Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, Inc." on Justia Law

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Defendants Township of Sparta, Paul Austin, and Sparta Department of Public Works (collectively, defendants) challenged a denial of workers’ compensation benefits to plaintiff Diane Lapsley under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley was employed by the Township as a librarian for the Sparta Public Library. On February 3, 2014, Lapsley’s husband arrived at the library to drive Lapsley home. As they walked from the library to the car through the parking lot, they were suddenly struck by a snowplow owned by the Township and operated by Paul Austin, a Township employee. As a result, Lapsley suffered injuries to her leg requiring multiple surgeries and leaving her permanently disfigured. Lapsley filed a complaint against defendants in court, and later, a claim for workers’ compensation benefits against the Township in the Law Division of Workers’ Compensation. The Division found that Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment and were therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding Lapsley’s injuries were not compensable under the Act. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment because the parking lot where she was injured was owned and maintained by the Township, adjacent to her place of work, and used by Township employees to park. Lapsley was therefore entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. View "Lapsley v. Township of Sparta" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Hamid Harris alleged that Donald Stabile, a Newark Police Department detective, falsely accused him of four armed robberies that were committed in Newark in January 2015, and unlawfully arrested him in connection with those robberies based on an improperly issued arrest warrant. After the charges against plaintiff were dismissed, he filed this action. Defendants the City of Newark, Detective Donald Stabile, and Police Officer Angel Romero following the trial court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment, contended the trial court erred in denying them qualified immunity as a defense to Harris’s claims brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). Defendants contended the trial court’s order denying summary judgment was a legal determination and should therefore be deemed appealable as of right, in keeping with both New Jersey appellate practice and federal law. The trial court reasoned that because Stabile did not have probable cause to arrest plaintiff, and because Stabile’s belief that plaintiff committed the robberies was objectively unreasonable, defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Appellate Division ruled that “[t]he appeal is interlocutory as it is not from a final order” and dismissed defendants’ notice of appeal. The appellate court also denied defendants’ motion for leave to appeal. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the trial court’s order was a decision premised on factual findings as well as legal conclusions, not an exclusively legal determination. "In an NJCRA action, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6. View "Harris v. City of Newark, et al." on Justia Law

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In Spring 2015, plaintiffs Thomas and Julie Stewart were injured when they lost control of their motorcycle while riding over a Garden State Parkway overpass. Thomas testified that, after he and his wife passed through the Toms River toll plaza, their bike began to “shimmy,” and Thomas suspected that he had suffered a flat tire. As they tried to pull over, they crossed the expansion joint between the roadway and the bridge, and the bike’s back end bounced up and ejected Julie. Thomas then let go of the bike, slid to the ground, and both he and Julie suffered serious injuries. They brought this action against defendants, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and several of its paving and roadwork contractors, including Earle Asphalt. The parties engaged in over two years of discovery, with plaintiffs requesting extensions seven times. During argument before the trial court on defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs changed their theory of liability. They argued, for the first time, that defendants failed to properly pave a portion of roadway on the overpass, leaving a height differential in the pavement. Under that newly asserted theory, plaintiffs alleged that it was the height differential in the roadway, rather than the joint, that caused them to lose control of the motorcycle. The trial court declined to consider the new theory and granted summary judgment to the Authority on its immunity defense and to Earle on its derivative immunity defense. The Appellate Division reversed, finding a genuine issue of material fact existed based on the testimony of one of the motorcyclists who accompanied plaintiffs and claimed to have seen a piece of metal in the roadway. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that plaintiffs’ new theory should not have been considered given its late presentation. Nonetheless, for completeness, the Court held that plaintiffs’ new theory also did not raise an issue of material fact. The trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants was reinstated, and the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. View "Stewart v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority" on Justia Law

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In June 2018, plaintiff “Clara” and defendant “Martin” had sex after a night of drinking. Plaintiff alleged she was too intoxicated to give consent, but defendant claimed the entire encounter was consensual. Plaintiff filed for a temporary restraining order pursuant to the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015 (SASPA), which required consideration of at least two factors, commonly referred to as the two "prongs:": “(1) the occurrence of one or more acts of nonconsensual sexual contact . . . against the alleged victim; and (2) the possibility of future risk to the safety or well-being of the alleged victim.” After a hearing, the trial court found both parties’ accounts to be “equally plausible.” Applying the preponderance of the evidence standard, the court concluded that Clara’s extreme voluntary intoxication rendered her “temporarily incapable of understanding the nature of her conduct” and that she had therefore been subjected to nonconsensual sexual contact within the meaning of SASPA’s first prong. With regard to the second prong, the court noted the lack of evidence that Martin sought to contact Clara after their encounter. Nonetheless, recognizing that SASPA was intended to provide protection to victims of nonconsensual sexual contact, as well as the possibility that Martin “may now harbor a grudge against [Clara] which would probably not have occurred but for these proceedings,” the court concluded that “it is more likely than not that a final restraining order is appropriate.” The Appellate Division reversed and remanded, holding that the proper standard to assess whether plaintiff was incapable of consent due to intoxication was the prostration of faculties standard. The New Jersey Supreme Court found both lower courts were wrong: the appropriate standard to determine whether sexual activity was consensual under SASPA was the standard articulated in New Jersey in Interest of M.T.S., 129 N.J. 422 (1992), which was applied from the perspective of the alleged victim. The trial court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for the trial court for assessment under the standard articulated in M.T.S. View "C.R. v. M.T." on Justia Law