Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Guerline Felix’s vehicle collided with Brian Richards’ vehicle in New Jersey. Richards was insured under a New Jersey automobile insurance policy issued by AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance Company (AAA). The policy provided bodily injury (BI) liability coverage, as well as uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. Felix was insured by the Government Employee Insurance Company (GEICO) under a policy written in Florida. That policy provided up to $10,000 in property liability and personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, but it did not provide any BI liability. Felix sued Richards for personal injuries, and, in a separate action, Richards sued Felix and AAA for personal injuries. AAA then filed a third-party complaint against GEICO, claiming that GEICO’s policy was automatically deemed to include $15,000/$30,000 in BI coverage and that payment would eliminate the claim for UM/UIM coverage by AAA. The motion court determined that the New Jersey "deemer" statute applied to GEICO’s policy, rejecting the argument that the statute created a carve-out for BI coverage based upon the basic policy, as well as GEICO’s constitutional challenge. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the petition for certification filed by GEICO. The Supreme Court concluded after review that the deemer statute did not incorporate by reference the basic policy’s BI level for insurers, like GEICO, to which the second sentence of N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4 applied. From the perspective of the insurers’ obligation, the required compulsory insurance liability limits remained $15,000/$30,000. As to the equal protection claim, New Jersey insureds were the ones who had a choice to purchase less than the presumptive minimum BI amount. The obligation of in-state insurers to offer and provide that minimum was the same as the obligation imposed under the deemer statute’s second sentence on authorized insurers writing an out-of-state policy. "The equal protection claim therefore falls flat," and the Appellate Division's judgment was affirmed. View "Felix v. Richards" on Justia Law

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Walter and Mary Van Riper transferred ownership of their marital home to a single irrevocable trust. Walter passed away shortly after transfer of the property to the trust. Six years later, after Mary passed away, the trustee distributed the property to the couple’s niece. In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the New Jersey Division of Taxation (Division) properly taxed the full value of the home at the time of Mary’s death. Walter and Mary directed that, if sold, all proceeds from the sale of their residence would be held in trust for their benefit and would be utilized to provide housing and shelter during their lives. Walter died nineteen days after the creation of the Trust. Mary died six years later, still living in the marital residence. Mary’s inheritance tax return reported one-half of the date-of-death value of the marital residence as taxable. However, the Division conducted an audit and imposed a transfer inheritance tax assessment based upon the entire value of the residence at the time of Mary’s death. Mary’s estate paid the tax assessed but filed an administrative protest challenging the transfer inheritance tax assessment. The Division issued its final determination that the full fair market value of the marital residence held by the Trust should be included in Mary’s taxable estate for transfer inheritance tax purposes. The Appellate Division affirmed the Tax Court’s conclusion, rejecting the estate’s argument that transfer inheritance tax should only be assessed on Mary’s undivided one-half interest in the residence. The Supreme Court agreed with both the Tax Court and the Appellate Division that the Division properly taxed the entirety of the residence when both life interests were extinguished, and the remainder was transferred to Marita. The property’s transfer, in its entirety, took place “at or after” Mary’s death, and was appropriately taxed at its full value at that time. “In light of the estate-planning mechanism used here, any other holding would introduce an intolerable measure of speculation and uncertainty in an area of law in which clarity, simplicity, and ease of implementation are paramount.” View "Estate of Mary Van Riper v. Director, Division of Taxation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Barbara Orientale brought a personal-injury lawsuit against defendant Darrin Jennings for allegedly setting off an automobile accident that caused her to suffer permanent injuries. The trial court entered partial summary judgment against Jennings, finding that he was at fault for causing the accident. Orientale and Jennings then settled the lawsuit for $100,000, the full amount of liability coverage on Jennings’s vehicle. Orientale maintained an underinsured motorist policy with defendant Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company (Allstate) that provided coverage for damages up to $250,000. Orientale initiated a claim for her personal-injury damages in excess of $100,000 allegedly caused by the accident. Although the jury returned a verdict finding that Orientale suffered a permanent injury, it awarded damages in the amount of only $200. Because the jury award did not exceed Orientale’s $100,000 settlement with Jennings, Allstate’s underinsured motorist coverage policy was not triggered. Orientale moved for a new damages trial or an additur. The judge vacated the damages award, finding that it constituted a miscarriage of justice, and granted an additur in the amount of $47,500, the lowest award in his estimation that a reasonable jury could have returned in light of the evidence presented at trial. Plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of additur on the basis that the judge acts as a “super jury” in setting a damages award in violation of the right to a jury trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that when a damages award is deemed a miscarriage of justice requiring the grant of a new trial, the acceptance of a damages award fixed by the judge must be based on the mutual consent of the parties. "Going forward, in those rare instances when a trial judge determines that a damages award is either so grossly excessive or grossly inadequate that the grant of a new damages trial is justified, the judge has the option of setting a remittitur or an additur at an amount that a reasonable jury would award given the evidence in the case. Setting the figure at an amount a reasonable jury would award -- an amount that favors neither side -- is intended to give the competing parties the greatest incentive to reach agreement. If both parties accept the remittitur or additur, then the case is settled; if not, a new trial on damages must proceed before a jury." View "Orientale v. Jennings" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Ronald and Donna Rowe filed an asbestos product liability action alleging that Ronald contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products sold by defendants. Plaintiffs settled their claims with eight defendants. When the trial commenced, "Universal" was the only defendant remaining. Universal moved to admit excerpts from the settling defendants’ answers to interrogatories and the deposition testimony of their corporate representatives. Relying on N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1), and noting Universal’s crossclaims, the trial court admitted the interrogatory answers as statements by a party to the case. Although the court cited N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1) with respect to only one settling defendant, it deemed the corporate representatives of six out-of-state settling defendants to be unavailable to testify at trial and admitted their deposition testimony. However, the trial court excluded the deposition testimony of the corporate representatives of two defendants, as well as portions of certain answers to interrogatories and deposition testimony proffered by Universal. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiffs’ favor but allocated only twenty percent of the fault to Universal, sharing the remainder of the fault among the eight settling defendants. Plaintiffs moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial, arguing in part that Universal had failed to present prima facie evidence sufficient to warrant an allocation of fault to the settling defendants. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion and entered a molded judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial on the apportionment of fault. It held that the disputed evidence was inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1) because Universal did not offer that evidence against the settling defendants and under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1) because the declarants were not “unavailable.” The Appellate Division further held that the disputed evidence did not constitute statements against interest for purposes of N.J.R.E. 803(c)(25). It declined to reverse the trial court’s denial of plaintiffs’ post-verdict motion, however. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court's judgment, reversed it, and reinstated the trial court's judgment. View "Rowe v. Bell Gossett Company" on Justia Law

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David and Christine Minsavage were married and had four children. David had served as a math teacher for more than twenty-four years when he was diagnosed with terminal stage IV pancreatic cancer in August 2014. In November 2014, following advice allegedly provided by a New Jersey Education Association representative, David selected the “early retirement” option on his retirement application. Early retirement eligibility required twenty-five years of teaching service. David passed away in April 2015, having accumulated just over twenty-four years and nine months of teaching service over the course of his career. Less than two weeks after David’s death, the Division of Pension and Benefits notified Christine that David’s retirement application would not be approved because he had not completed twenty-five years of teaching service. As a result, Christine was entitled only to reimbursement of David’s pension contributions and a group life insurance benefit. Because David did not live long enough to qualify for early retirement, his family would have been entitled to greater benefits had he selected and qualified for “ordinary disability,” rather than “early retirement,” on his retirement application. Christine sought to modify David’s retirement application to select ordinary disability. The Board of Trustees of the Pension Fund (the Board) denied Christine’s request on the ground that the Pension Fund’s “administrative regulations do not allow for retroactive disability retirement applications, and become effective only on or after the date of filing.” The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, however, finding that neither membership nor prior approval of a retirement application was required for modification of a retirement selection where good cause, reasonable grounds, and reasonable diligence were shown. The Court remanded this matter for further proceedings to allow Christine the opportunity to argue in favor of modification under that standard. View "Minsavage v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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When a toxic disaster hits, claimants could seek relief in the form of assistance from the New Jersey Spill Fund by following promulgated claims procedures. In order to resolve disputes over denied Fund monies quickly and fairly, the Fund uses arbitrators and flexible procedures to allow claimants the opportunity to demonstrate that the denial constituted arbitrary and capricious action. Petitioner, US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund, submitted a claim for Spill Fund monies for its multi-lot property located in Bayonne that was affected by storm floodwaters, which allegedly carried petroleum-based toxins. Neighboring properties also affected by the storm’s toxin-laden floodwaters were afforded Spill Fund relief. Following some back and forth with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), petitioner’s claim was denied. After petitioner filed an appeal, two years elapsed between the request for arbitration and the commencement of the arbitration proceeding. The results of the arbitration ended in favor of the Spill Fund, and payment remained denied. The New Jersey Supreme Court expressed "concerns" about the arbitration. "Although we are mindful of the deferential standard of review, flaws in the substantive reasoning of the arbitration decision as well as procedural fairness considerations undermine confidence in the outcome of this arbitration enough to persuade us, in the interest of fairness, to require that a new arbitration be conducted. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this claim for a new proceeding." View "US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection" on Justia Law

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In 2010, a nine-month-old infant, J.H., suffered permanent scarring when he was burned by an uncovered, free-standing cast iron loop radiator in an apartment owned and managed by defendants R&M Tagliareni, LLC, and Robert & Maria Tagliareni, II, LLC. J.H.’s father placed J.H. in a twin bed to sleep with his ten-year-old stepsister. The bed did not have rails and was adjacent to a steam-heated radiator that did not have a cover. The next morning, J.H. was discovered lying on the floor with his head pressed against the hot radiator. As a result of the seriousness of J.H.’s injuries, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office launched a child abuse investigation. Detectives spoke with the building’s superintendent, who explained that while the individual apartments were not equipped with thermostat controls, the radiators in each room of the apartments could be shut off by the tenants through valves located at the base of each radiator unit. J.H. and his guardian ad litem filed suit, alleging defendants’ negligence was the cause of J.H.’s injuries. The New Jersey Supreme Court was unpersuaded that N.J.A.C. 5:10-14.3(d) imposed any regulatory duty on landlords to cover in-unit radiators with insulating material or a cover. The Court also found the tenants in this case maintained exclusive control over the heat emanating from the radiator, therefore, the Court declined to impose on landlords a new common law duty to cover all in-unit radiators. View "J.H. v. RM Tagliareni" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Chiofalo, a then-member of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), filed a complaint under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) against his employer and certain supervisors (collectively, defendants). As the Assistant Administrative Officer of Troop B of the NJSP, Chiofalo was required to log documents that came in and out of headquarters and to collect reports from the Troop B commander. Chiofalo alleges he was subjected to adverse employment actions as retaliation for his engagement in protected activity related to two incidents. The first pertained to a claimed refusal to destroy internal NJSP documents. In 2012, a sergeant and a trooper participated in an unsanctioned escort on the Garden State Parkway, for which they later became subjects of internal review. Chiofalo claimed that the second protected activity occurred during an interaction with the Troop B Commander, in which he accused the Commander of not reporting his vacation time. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Chiofalo failed to set forth a prima facie case under CEPA. The court denied the motion. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Chiofalo compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court judgment, stating, with respect to the validity of a CEPA claim under N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c), a plaintiff had to first find and enunciate the specific terms of a statute or regulation, or the clear expression of public policy, which would be violated if the facts as alleged are true. The appellate court concluded that Chiofalo failed to do so and that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on that basis. Specific to the timekeeping claim, the Appellate Division added that Chiofalo’s statement to the Commander “was hardly 'whistleblowing’ as contemplated by CEPA.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in part, finding the trial court did not er in refusing to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on one of plaintiff's two bases for whistleblowing charges. The Court affirmed with respect to the alleged timesheet violation. View "Chiofalo v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Officer Corey Corbo became gravely ill while at home with his girlfriend and colleague, Officer Jessica Garcia. Garcia called 9-1-1 and later admitted that Corbo had ingested cocaine five days earlier. The paramedics rushed Corbo to the hospital, where his laboratory results came back positive for cocaine. Relying on the hospital records, which included the positive lab results, and Garcia’s statement about the cocaine, Union City terminated Corbo’s employment with the UCPD. The Appellate Division reversed the decision removing Corbo from the UCPD, holding that the ALJ erred when she admitted the hospital records into evidence without first requiring the City to lay foundational testimony to satisfy the requirements of the business records hearsay exception. It also held that the City failed to establish the reliability of the lab results or to introduce other competent evidence at the hearing but did not remand for further evidentiary proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court modified the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded matter to the Office of Administrative Law for further proceedings to allow the City the opportunity to demonstrate that the hospital records were admissible as business records, and for the opportunity to present any other theories of admissibility. View "In the Matter of Corey Corbo" on Justia Law

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T.L. consulted Dr. Jack Goldberg for a blood condition. In October 2010, Dr. Goldberg told T.L. about a new medication, Pegasys. After taking Pegasys, T.L. experienced a number of symptoms, but Dr. Goldberg advised that T.L. should continue taking Pegasys. T.L. began experiencing severe pain in her neck and both arms, requiring hospitalization and rehabilitation. T.L. was diagnosed with inflammation of the spinal cord and experienced partial paralysis on her right side. T.L. brought suit against Dr. Goldberg and his employer, Penn Medicine Cherry Hill. T.L. claimed that Dr. Goldberg deviated from accepted standards of care by prescribing Pegasys to her because she was diagnosed with, and took medication for, chronic depression. During Dr. Goldberg’s deposition, when asked whether he was aware of any studies in the Journal of Clinical Oncology pertaining to the use of Pegasys to treat patients with T.L.’s condition, Dr. Goldberg answered “no.” On T.L.’s motion, the court barred Dr. Goldberg from using any medical literature at trial that was not produced during the course of discovery. At trial, Dr. Goldberg testified that he prescribed Pegasys to T.L. because he relied upon a clinical trial, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2009, that included patients with a history of depression. T.L.’s counsel did not object. The jury found that Dr. Goldberg did not deviate from the applicable standard of care. T.L. was granted a new trial on grounds that Dr. Goldberg’s discussion of the 2009 publication constituted reversible error. Dr. Goldberg appealed as of right based on a dissenting justice in the Appellate Division's reversal of the trial court. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding there was no demonstration that the changed testimony caused prejudice to T.L., and the plain error standard did not compel reversal, "especially because counsel’s failure to object was likely strategic." Under the circumstances, T.L. was not entitled to a new trial. View "T.L. v. Goldberg" on Justia Law