Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Attorney's Mistake Does Not Justify Relief

The New Jersey Appellate Division has held that an attorney's error did not justify equitable reinstatement of a dismissed complaint.

Twenty-seven-year-old David Eric Yearby, an alleged mentally ill man, died strapped to a "restraint chair" in the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Facility, approximately twenty-four hours after he was arrested for assault and resisting arrest by the local police department. The legal representative of his estate filed a multi-count civil suit against a number of public entities and their employees, including three nurses employed by the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Facility

After joinder of issue, the nurses moved to dismiss with prejudice the counts in plaintiffs' complaint alleging professional and/or medical malpractice based on plaintiffs' failure to file a timely Affidavit of Merit (AOM) as required by the Affidavit of Merit statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-26 to -29. The trial court granted the nurses' unopposed motion.

Nearly two months later, plaintiffs, represented by substitute counsel, moved to restore the counts dismissed by the court based on the doctrine of substantial compliance and due to "extraordinary circumstances." Plaintiffs' substitute counsel argued that former counsel's failure to take any action to comply with the requirements of the Affidavit of Merit statute, including failing to oppose defendants' motion to dismiss, constituted "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a dispensation from the draconian sanction of dismissal with prejudice

The trial court had reinstated the claim but

We are keenly aware of the seriousness of the allegations raised in this civil action. The circumstances that plaintiffs allege caused this young man's death are unimaginably horrific. Those who are found civilly liable should be held accountable. However, as established by the Legislature and recognized by the Supreme Court, "an affidavit of merit strikes at the heart of the cause of action[.]" Paragon Contrs., Inc. v. Peachtree Condo. Ass'n, 202 N.J. 415, 422 (2009). Thus, neglecting to provide an affidavit of merit after the expiration of the 120-day time period in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27 "generally requires dismissal with prejudice[.]" Ibid. Here, there is no evidential basis to support the trial court's decision to apply equitable principles to relax this statutory time restriction.

 (Mike Frisch)

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