Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Nineteen-year-old Mark Zwierzynski permitted underage adult friends to consume alcoholic beverages in his home. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Narleski and twenty-year-old Nicholas Gomes left the home severely intoxicated. Shortly afterwards, Gomes lost control of his vehicle and crashed. Narleski died at the scene. Gomes’s blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether the common law imposed a duty on underage adults -- over the age of eighteen but under twenty-one -- to refrain from making their homes a safe haven for underage guests to consume alcoholic beverages and, if so, what the standard for liability would be if an underage guest, who becomes intoxicated, afterwards drives a motor vehicle and injures or kills a third party. The Court held an underage adult defendant may be held civilly liable to a third-party drunk driving victim if the defendant facilitated the use of alcohol by making his home available as a venue for underage drinking, regardless of whether he was a leaseholder or titleholder of the property; if the guest causing the crash became visibly intoxicated in the defendant’s home; and if it was reasonably foreseeable that the visibly intoxicated guest would leave the residence to operate a motor vehicle and cause injury to another. The Appellate Division was reversed, the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Zwierzynski was vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Estate of Brandon Narleski v. Gomes" on Justia Law

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Dr. Dominick Lembo employed Arlene Marchese in his dental practice as his office manager, and Karen Wright, a dental hygienist. Sometime before December 2011, Marchese and Wright unlawfully took possession of numerous checks totaling several hundred thousand dollars, forged Lembo’s indorsement on the checks, and deposited the proceeds from the forged checks into their personal accounts at TD Bank. In February 2015, Lembo filed a complaint against TD Bank, alleging that “TD Bank knew or should have known that Marchese and/or Wright were not permitted to negotiate checks made payable to [Lembo].” The complaint also alleged that by permitting them to negotiate checks with forged indorsements, TD Bank “aided and abetted Marchese and Wright in their fraudulent scheme and conduct.” The complaint did not assert that Lembo had a banking relationship with TD Bank. And Lembo did not file an action for conversion under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) within the three-year limitations period. Had Lembo done so, TD Bank would have been strictly liable for depositing or cashing those checks, subject to the defenses in N.J.S.A. 12A:3-405 or N.J.S.A. 12A:3-406. The trial court granted the Bank's motion to dismiss, finding that the UCC governed Lembo's remedies against the Bank, and “common law negligence is not such a remedy” in the absence of a “special relationship” between Lembo and the bank. The court also rejected Lembo’s argument that the Uniform Fiduciaries Law (UFL) provided an affirmative cause of action against the bank. The Appellate Division reversed, reading into the complaint the basis for an affirmative UFL claim, and remanded to allow Lembo to amend the complaint to assert such a claim. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the Appellate Division misconstrued the purpose of the UFL, finding the Legislature enacted the UFL not to create an affirmative cause of action against a bank but to provide a defense when the bank is sued for failing to take notice of and action on the breach of a fiduciary’s obligation. "The UFL confers a limited immunity on a bank, unless the bank acts in bad faith or has actual knowledge of a fiduciary breach." The Supreme Court found no affirmative cause of action arose under the statute; whether a UFL claim was adequately pled was therefore moot. Recognizing the predominant role the UCC plays in assigning liability for the handling of checks, the Supreme Court also found Lembo had no “special relationship” with the bank to sustain the common law causes of action. View "Lembo v. Marchese" on Justia Law

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In 2005, U.S. Home Corporation entered into a contract to purchase two contiguous tracts of land, one of which was owned by West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. Under the contract, West Pleasant and the other landowner were to gain certain approvals permitting development of the properties. Pursuant to the contract, U.S. Home paid advances to the landowners totaling over $1.5 million. As security for the advances, West Pleasant executed a mortgage and note on its property; the other landowner did not. When a contract dispute arose in 2006, U.S. Home sought to terminate the contract and get a return of its total advance. U.S. Home prevailed in arbitration and was awarded a judgment in the full amount of the advance, plus interest. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in 2009. When the judgment was not satisfied, U.S. Home commenced foreclosure actions against the properties. The foreclosure proceedings were stayed when West Pleasant and the other property owner filed for bankruptcy. In West Pleasant’s bankruptcy action, U.S. Home moved to dismiss and for relief from the automatic stay. West Pleasant and U.S. Home executed a Consent Order, in which West Pleasant dismissed its bankruptcy proceeding, waived a fair market valuation and its right to object to a sheriff’s sale of its property, and released U.S. Home from any claims in law or equity. U.S. Home never proceeded with any deficiency action against either landowner. Nonetheless, the landowners commenced the affirmative litigation that gave rise to this appeal, seeking a declaration that the arbitration award was fully satisfied, as well as compensation “in the amount of the excess fair market value of the properties obtained by defendant[] U.S. Home over the amount of its outstanding judgment.” The second property owner then assigned its rights to West Pleasant. After trial, the court valued the second property as worth almost $2.4 million and West Pleasant’s property as worth almost $2 million. The court ordered U.S. Home to pay the fair market value of the West Pleasant property, plus interest, and extinguished the arbitration award on the second property. On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that West Pleasant had waived its right to a fair market valuation on its property but that it was owed a fair market value credit for the second property. The Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for recalculation of damages. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding use of fair market value credit by this debtor to obtain a money judgment against a creditor, in the absence of a deficiency claim threatened or pursued or any objection being raised at the time of the sheriff’s sales, was "inconsistent with sound foreclosure processes and, moreover, inequitable in the circumstances presented." The judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. v. U.S. Home Corporation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Regina Little asserted claims on her own behalf and on behalf of other New Jersey owners and lessees of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 Kia Sephia vehicles distributed by defendant Kia Motors America, Inc., alleging that those vehicles had a defective brake system. The central question in this appeal was whether the trial court properly permitted plaintiff’s theory of damages based on the cost of brake repairs to be asserted classwide, supported only by aggregate proofs. The jury determined that defendant had breached its express and implied warranties and that the class had sustained damages. The jury found that the class members had suffered $0 in damages due to diminution in value but that each class member had sustained $750 in damages “[f]or repair expenses reasonably incurred as a result of the defendant’s breach of warranty.” The trial court granted defendant’s motion to decertify the class as to the quantum of damages each individual owner suffered. The parties cross-appealed. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s post-trial determinations, reinstated the jury’s award for out-of-pocket repair costs based on plaintiff’s aggregate proofs, and remanded for an award of attorneys’ fees. The appellate court held that, notwithstanding the jury’s rejection of plaintiff’s diminution-in-value theory, the trial court should have ordered a new trial on both theories of damages, which it found were not “fairly separable from each another.” Although aggregate proof of damages can be appropriate in some settings, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered such proof improper as presented in this case. The trial court erred when it initially allowed plaintiff to prove class-members’ out-of-pocket costs for brake repairs based on an estimate untethered to the experience of plaintiff’s class. The trial court properly ordered individualized proof of damages on plaintiff’s brake-repair claim based on the actual costs incurred by the class members. Thus, the trial court’s grant of defendant’s motions for a new trial and for partial decertification of the class were a proper exercise of its discretion. View "Little v. Kia Motors America, Inc." on Justia Law

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Defendant Javier Torres signed a promissory note (Note) secured by a residential mortgage (Mortgage). Torres defaulted on the Note. CitiMortgage, Inc., discovered that it had lost the original Note but had retained a digital copy setting forth its terms. CitiMortgage assigned the Mortgage and its interest in the Note to plaintiff Investors Bank (Investors). In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether Investors could enforce the Note. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court: Investors Bank could enforce the note. Relying on two statutes addressing assignments, N.J.S.A. 2A:25-1 and N.J.S.A. 46:9-9, as well as common-law assignment principles, the Court held Investors had the right as an assignee of the Mortgage and transferee of the Note to enforce the Note. The Court construed N.J.S.A. 12A:3-309 to address the rights of CitiMortgage as the possessor of a note or other instrument at the time that the instrument was lost, but not to supplant New Jersey assignment statutes and common law in the setting of this appeal or to preclude an assignee in Investors’ position from asserting its rights according to the Note’s terms. Read together, "N.J.S.A. 12A:3-309, N.J.S.A. 2A:25-1, and N.J.S.A. 46:9-9 clearly authorized the assignment and entitled Investors to enforce its assigned Mortgage and transferred Note." View "Investors Bank v. Torres" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Henry Sanchez filed a class action seeking relief based on the Retail Installment Sales Act, N.J.S.A. 17:16C-1 to -61 (RISA). He contended the “initiation fee” charged in defendant Fitness Factory’s gym membership contract, among other provisions, violated RISA. The trial court dismissed Sanchez’s complaint, finding that RISA did not apply to the contract because it was a contract for services. The Appellate Division affirmed. While acknowledging that RISA applied to some services contracts, the Appellate Division found that RISA applied only to contracts that contained a financing arrangement. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that by its own terms, RISA applied to services contracts. Further, in the statute as written, there was no requirement that a contract include a financing arrangement to be covered by RISA. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Sanchez v. Fitness Factory Edgewater, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Arthur Whelan filed suit against seven defendants, who allegedly manufactured or distributed products integrated with asbestos-containing components. Whelan claimed he was exposed to asbestos dust while working on those products, including their original asbestos-containing components or asbestos-containing replacement components. Defendants contended that Whelan could not establish that his exposure to asbestos was the result of any product they manufactured or distributed, disclaiming any liability for Whelan’s exposure to asbestos-containing replacement parts that they did not manufacture or distribute, even though the parts were incorporated into their products. Whelan countered that it made no difference whether he was exposed to defendants’ original asbestos-containing components or a third party’s asbestos-containing components -- defendants’ duty to warn and liability attached to both. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. The Appellate Division reversed, determining that defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers of the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued functioning of their products and that defendants could be held strictly liable for the failure to do so, provided Whelan suffered sufficient exposure to the replacement components to contribute to his disease. After Whelan appealed, the Appellate Division issued Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co., 435 N.J. Super. 326 (App. Div. 2014), which held that a defendant had a duty to warn, regardless of who manufactured the replacement components, because under the facts of that case, “it was reasonably foreseeable . . . that the gaskets and packing would be replaced regularly with gaskets and packing that contained asbestos.” The Appellate Division found that Whelan had “presented sufficient evidence detailing his exposure to asbestos,” either from defendants’ original or replacement components or from a third party’s replacement components, to withstand summary judgment. Thus, the Whelan panel reversed the summary judgment order and left the disputed issues of fact to be resolved by a jury. Finding no reversible error in the appellate panel's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Juan Morales-Hurtado filed a vehicular negligence claim against defendant Abel Reinoso. The Supreme Court shared the Appellate Division's view that the cumulative effect of multiple errors deprived plaintiff of a fair trial and of a verdict based on the merits of the parties’ claims, and that he was entitled to a new trial. The Court took the opportunity to comment on the Appellate Division’s reversal of the trial court’s decision to exclude the opinion of Dianne Simmons-Grab, a certified life care planner. Simmons-Grab was not a physician or other health care provider, and was in the Court's estimation, "clearly unqualified to opine on plaintiff’s prognosis or to identify any medication, surgery, therapy, or other care necessary to treat his injuries over his lifetime." The trial court found that Simmons-Grab’s opinion was based on unreliable sources of information and excluded her testimony. As the court observed, she relied on medical records and questionnaires that she “prepared in detail . . . and submitted to the doctors for their markings and then sign off.” Although the questionnaires were “purportedly filled out . . . by the medical providers,” the court noted that “[t]he responses . . . by the medical providers were not certified,” and there was no indication that each physician had offered an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty within his area of expertise. The Supreme Court held that in appropriate circumstances, an expert witness could rely on the opinion of another expert in a relevant field. "That principle, however, does not obviate the need to demonstrate that the treating physician on whom the life care expert relies actually holds the opinion attributed to him or her, which can be accomplished by means of a report by the treating physician, his or her trial testimony, or other competent evidence. . . . In the event that plaintiff seeks to present the expert testimony of Simmons-Grab on remand -- and defendant challenges the reliability of that opinion -- the trial court should conduct a hearing pursuant to N.J.R.E. 104(c), and determine the question of admissibility in accordance with the standards prescribed by N.J.R.E. 702 and N.J.R.E. 703." View "Morales-Hurtado v. Reinoso" on Justia Law

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New Jersey Transit Corporation (New Jersey Transit) sought to recover workers’ compensation benefits paid to an employee, David Mercogliano, who sustained injuries in a work-related motor vehicle accident. It sued the individuals allegedly at fault in the accident, defendants Sandra Sanchez and Chad Smith, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-40, a provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act that authorized employers and workers’ compensation carriers that have paid workers’ compensation benefits to injured employees to assert subrogation claims. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether that subrogation action was barred by the Auto Insurance Cost Recovery Act (AICRA). The trial court granted defendants’ motion, ruling that New Jersey Transit could not assert a claim based on economic loss. It noted that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-2(k) defined economic loss for purposes of AICRA to mean “uncompensated loss of income or property, or other uncompensated expenses, including, but not limited to, medical expenses.” In the trial court’s view, because New Jersey Transit’s workers’ compensation carrier paid benefits for all of Mercogliano’s medical expenses and lost income, he had no “uncompensated loss of income or property,” and thus sustained no economic loss for purposes of AICRA. The trial court relied on Continental Insurance Co. v. McClelland, 288 N.J. Super. 185 (App. Div. 1996), and policy considerations in reaching its decision. The Appellate Division reversed that judgment, agreeing with New Jersey Transit that its subrogation action arose entirely from “economic loss comprised of medical expenses and wage loss, not noneconomic loss.” However, it rejected the trial court’s view that an employer’s or workers’ compensation carrier’s subrogation claim based on benefits paid for economic loss contravened AICRA’s legislative intent. Finding no error in the appellate court's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "New Jersey Transit Corporation v. Sanchez" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the representation of plaintiff Antonio Nieves by a state public defender, Peter Adolf, Esq. After his conviction, Nieves was granted post-conviction relief based on the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. DNA evidence later confirmed that Nieves was not the perpetrator, and the underlying indictment against him was dismissed. Nieves subsequently recovered damages from the State for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He then filed the present legal malpractice action seeking damages against the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) and Adolf. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA) barred the damages sought because Nieves failed to vault N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d)’s verbal threshold. The motion court concluded that the TCA and its verbal threshold were inapplicable. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that “public defenders are public employees that come within the TCA’s immunities and defenses” and that Nieves’s claim fell squarely within the TCA. The Appellate Division also held that plaintiff’s claim for loss of liberty damages fell within the TCA’s limitation on recovery for pain and suffering in N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), which Nieves failed to satisfy. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the TCA applied to Nieves’s legal malpractice action, and his claim for loss of liberty damages failed to vault the verbal threshold for a pain and suffering damages claim under the strictures of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). Defendants were entitled to summary judgment. View "Nieves v. Office of the Public Defender" on Justia Law