Does a judge have to explain the “empty chair” to the jury when there was never anyone sitting there in the first place?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Empty chairA recent trial court decision, Hernandez v. Chekenian, dealt with a minor, but significant, twist on a common scenario involving the so-called empty chair defense. This defense does not literally involve an empty chair. Rather it refers to the situation when defense counsel argues to a jury that someone else, someone not sitting at the defense table, is to blame for plaintiff's injuries. That party is usually, but not always, missing because they settled with the plaintiff.

The New Jersey model jury charges contain two settling co-defendant instructions. One is very short, and simply notifies the jury that a defendant settled and that "[t]he effect of that settlement on the parties still [t]here is of no concern to you at the present time and you should not speculate about that." The second is more detailed. It similarly notes that the jury should not "speculate as to the reasons why the plaintiff and defendant settled their dispute" and "should not be concerned about the amount, if any, that may have been paid to resolve the claim," but then instructs the jury to consider "whether or not the settling defendant was negligent and a proximate cause of the accident," and, if it does, to then "apportion fault in terms of percentages among/between the settling defendant(s) and the remaining defendant(s)." 

Hernandez involved a three-car, chain reaction crash. Plaintiff was the passenger in the middle car. He sued the driver and owner of the first car, the driver and owner of the middle car (in which plaintiff was a passenger), and the driver of the third car. Prior to trial, plaintiff dismissed the claims against the driver and owner of the first car and the claims against the owner of the second car. He then settled the claims against the driver of the middle car. That left only the claims against the driver of the third car for trial. Counsel for the one remaining defendant requested that the court give the jury a settling co-defendant charge.  

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Good News: That Tenant You May Not Have Known You Had Is Not A Cloud On Title

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

AuctionIf you have ever been to a sheriff's sale in New Jersey then you are familiar with the litany of announcements that precede each sale — "This sale is made subject to easements of record," "The property is being sold on an 'as is' basis," etc. Sellers make these announcements because, under New Jersey law, they are required to disclose "any substantial defect in or cloud upon the title of the real estate sold, which would render such title unmarketable." If a seller intentionally or negligently fails to disclose any substantial defects or clouds on title, then a court may vacate the winning bid and return the winning bidder's deposit. For example, if a seller fails to reveal the amount of unpaid taxes on a property before a sheriff's sale, the sale can be vacated if the winning bidder discovers the amount and is unwilling to pay it.

Usually included in these announcements is something making clear that the property is being sold subject to the rights of tenants and occupants, if any. But what happens when, after the sale, the winning bidder visits the property and discovers a tenant, or at least someone claiming to be a tenant, occupying the property? Does that entitle the winning bidder to vacate the sale and get its deposit back?

This is exactly what happened in PHH Mortgage Corporation v. Alleyne. In that case, the winning bidder at a sheriff's sale moved to set aside its successful bid and compel a refund of the amount it tendered to the sheriff at the sale (winning bidders are generally required to put 20% of the bid price down at the sale and pay the balance within 30 days). The winning bidder argued that, after the sheriff's sale, it sent a representative to the property and he discovered an individual who "refused to give his name but asserted rights to possession of the property as a tenant." The winning bidder argued that (1) this tenancy was a cloud on title, therefore it should have been disclosed at the sale, and (2) the seller has an independent duty to inspect for tenants on the property before the sale. The trial court rejected these arguments and the Appellate Division affirmed.

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Are Exceptions Starting To Swallow The “American Rule” In New Jersey?

Constitution (pd)The answer to that question would appear to be: it depends who you ask. In a pair of decisions released on April 26, 2016, Innes v. Marzano-Lesnevich and In Re Estate of Folcher, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the “American Rule” — the idea that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for its own attorney’s fees — and specifically whether to narrow or expand certain common-law exceptions to that rule. At the center of the two decisions was Justice LaVecchia, who authored the majority opinion in Folcher and the dissent in Innes. These decisions leave little doubt that this is not the last we have heard from the Supreme Court on the parameters of the American Rule.

First, a brief history of the American Rule in New Jersey. In 1948, New Jersey adopted a new Constitution and re-organized its court system. As part of this re-organization, and as it relates to the awarding of prevailing party attorney’s fees, New Jersey could have adopted either the English Rule, which allows for the liberal awarding of such fees, or the American Rule, which does not. New Jersey chose the latter. This decision is currently embodied in Rule 4:42-9, which only allows for eight exceptions to the general rule.

Over the years, however, New Jersey courts have created common law exceptions to the American Rule. These cases have followed two, independent tracks, one arising in the context of the attorney-client relationship and one arising in the context of estate administration.

 

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Just In Time For Summer, A New Decision On When You Are Required To Clear Snow From Your Property

In the recent past, I have written several posts about when property owners can be liable for accidents caused by their failure to shovel snow from the sidewalks abutting their property. The basic rules are well settled – residential property owners generally don't have a duty to shovel but commercial property owners do. Therefore, my posts focused on the more unique (and hopefully, interesting) cases. For example, one post discussed whether a property was residential or commercial, and therefore whether the property owner would be required to shovel or not, when the owner lived in one unit of the multifamily building and rented out the other units. Another post discussed whether a lender who obtained final judgment of foreclosure on a commercial property, but that had not yet taken title to the property through a sheriff's sale, was required to shovel the sidewalks around the building.

Now there is another case that is somewhat different than the traditional snowy sidewalk slip and fall. In Holmes v. INCAA-Carroll Street Houses Corp, plaintiff was a tenant in a property owned by defendants. She sued after she slipped, while on the way to her car, on "an accumulation of snow" approximately three feet from the doorway to her apartment. (The area where she fell was actually not a sidewalk, but was instead a "lawn or grassy area," but this  distinction was not relevant to the court's decision.) A snowstorm has been raging since the night before. The snow had slowed, and perhaps even stopped, by the morning of the accident, but the storm had nonetheless dropped more than 15 inches of snow on the area. The conditions in the area were so severe that, when plaintiff's son called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the ambulance company refused because of poor road conditions. The roads were not clear until the following day, at which point plaintiff drover herself to her doctor's office to be examined.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant had a duty to clear the snow from the property. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to do so in the middle of a storm. The court agreed with defendant.

 

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Res Ipsa At Red Lobster

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Not too long ago, I posted about a lawsuit filed by a diner against Applebees. (Click here if you don't remember.) In that case, the diner was allegedly burned after he leaned over a plate of sizzling fajitas for a pre-meal prayer. He sued, alleging that the hot plate was a dangerous and hazardous condition. Applebees argued that even if this was true, the dangerous condition was open, obvious, and easily understood, therefore it could not be liable for any damages that resulted from it. The court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Applebees.

Now comes another case where a diner was injured at a casual dining restaurant. This one, Clark v. Darden Restaurants, Inc., involved Red Lobster. In Clark, plaintiff was dining with a friend at Red Lobster. He was injured when their server dropped a plate on the table, causing the plate to shatter. Shards from the shattered plate punctured plaintiff's eyes. According to the court, the "evidence against the restaurant was damning." The server admitted that the plate was "slippery" and "greasy" and that he did not handle it properly. In light of this one-sided evidence, plaintiff moved for summary judgment, "invoking the familiar tort doctrine of res ipsa loquitur." He won, and Red Lobster appealed.

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