Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability

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

Gavel (pd)There is often tension between a court's need to effectively manage its docket and the overriding objective that a lawsuit be resolved on its merits and not because a party (or its counsel) misses a deadline. Courts establish deadlines. If they are ignored, can the court — as a sanction, and in the interest of managing its docket — dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice? According to the Appellate Division in a recent unpublished decision, Trezza v. Lambert-Wooley, the answer to this question is "no," unless the noncompliance was purposeful and no lesser remedy was available to the court. 

In Trezza,plaintiffs sued defendants for medical malpractice. Three years after the lawsuit was filed, the court set a peremptory trial date. This was rescheduled when the court did not reach the case on the trial date. The trial did not take place on the rescheduled date or a subsequent rescheduled date, both times because defendant's designated trial counsel was unavailable. Thereafter, the Presiding Judge issued a sua sponte order scheduling trial for approximately four months later and setting forth "specific and stringent terms as to the course and conduct of the case relative to trial." The order mandated that: (1) the trial date would not be adjourned to accommodate the parties' or counsels' personal or professional schedules; (2) counsel was required  to monitor the schedules of their parties, witnesses, and experts, and if one or more were not going to be available on the trial date, arrange for a de bene esse deposition ahead of trial; and (3) if designated trial counsel was not available on the trial date, alternate counsel would have to be found, whether or not from the same firm.

Five days before the scheduled trial date, plaintiff's counsel requested that the trial be carried for four days due to the unavailability of plaintiff's liability expert, which he only learned about a few days prior to the request. Defendants' counsel consented to the request. The judge assigned to the case considered the request but, in light of the Presiding Judge's order, determined that he did not have the authority to grant the adjournment. He sent the parties to the Presiding Judge, who denied the request and directed the parties to proceed to trial. "Predicated upon the terms of the order, the age of the case, and plaintiff's expert's unavailability, the judge [then] dismissed the complaint with prejudice." Plaintiffs appealed.

Continue reading “Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability”

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.  

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

Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules

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

Jury (pd)It is not often that a case that starts in the Special Civil Part — New Jersey's small-claims court — ends up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. But this is exactly what happened in Williams v. American Auto Logistics. It could not have been cost effective for the plaintiff to see this case through two separate bench trials, two separate appeals to the Appellate Division, and finally an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the issue in the case was so important that, notwithstanding the costs, the effort was likely worthwhile.

In Williams, plaintiff had his car shipped from Alaska to New Jersey by defendant. After he picked up the car, he discovered water damage in the trunk. Plaintiff sued in the Special Civil Part after efforts to amicably resolve the dispute failed. Plaintiff did not demand a jury trial in his complaint, but defendant did in its answer. At the pretrial conference, the trial court referred the parties to mediation, which was unsuccessful. Upon returning from mediation, defendant waived its jury demand. Plaintiff objected, but the trial court granted defendant's request. In support of its decision, the trial court noted that plaintiff had violated Rule 4:25-7 by failing to make the requisite pretrial submissions. (Among other things, Rule 4:25-7 requires parties to submit proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and jury verdict forms.) The trial court held that it could deny plaintiff's request for a jury trial as a sanction for this failure. Therefore, the case proceeded to a bench trial, where the trial court found no merit to plaintiff's claims.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded. It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand. It further explained that "a trial judge may impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on a party that fails to submit the requisite pretrial information," but that the trial court in Williams erred by "allowing a single party to unilaterally waive the jury demand."

Continue reading “Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules”

Do Lawyers Have A Duty To Disclose, To The Client, Significant Errors Committed By Co-Counsel?

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

Ethics (pd)
This was the question posed to the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association. Its answer was a qualified yes — counsel has a duty to disclose the alleged error to the client but only if it was a significant error that could give rise to a malpractice claim.

The issue presented to the Committee was the following:

The inquirer was engaged to represent a client on the eve of trial. The client’s prior counsel is serving as co-counsel.  In preparing the case, the inquirer has learned that co-counsel conducted virtually no discovery and made no document requests, although the inquirer believes correspondence and emails between the parties could be critical to the case.  The inquirer believes this was a significant error or omission that may give rise to a malpractice claim against co-counsel. The outcome of the case, however, has yet to be decided. The inquirer is concerned about disclosing this situation to the client because it would undermine inquirer’s relationship with co-counsel, but the inquirer also believes it is in the client’s best interests to disclose the facts as soon as possible.

It is already established in New York (and several other jurisdictions, including New Jersey) that lawyers must report their own significant errors or omissions to clients. This requirement is based partly on Rule 1.4 and partly on Rule 1.7, each of which the Committee discussed in its opinion.

Rule 1.4 requires lawyers to keep clients informed about any material developments in their representation, and to explain issues "to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation." A client may decide not to continue to retain a lawyer who makes significant errors or omissions, and the client cannot make an informed decision on this issue unless the lawyer self-reports his own errors. Accordingly, clients must self-report their own significant errors or omissions to their clients. The Committee held that this rationale applied equally to lawyers reporting significant errors or omissions committed by co-counsel because the decision facing the client in both situations was the same — whether to continue to retain the lawyer who committed the errors or omissions — and the client cannot make an informed decision on that issue without full disclosure.

Continue reading “Do Lawyers Have A Duty To Disclose, To The Client, Significant Errors Committed By Co-Counsel?”

Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable

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

Sky zone (pd)In the interest of full disclosure, I have taken my kids to the Sky Zone Trampoline Park near our home and we have always had a great time. For those who have never been, these types of places are full of trampolines, but not your parents' trampolines (assuming your parents had trampolines and your experience with them was slightly better than the children of Springfield). They are huge facilities where you can "free jump," play dodge ball on trampolines, use trampolines to dunk a basketball, jump off trampolines into foam pits, etc. As you might expect, before you are allowed to jump, you need to sign a waiver, usually electronically either before you get to the facility or when you get there. I have done this on behalf of myself and my kids and of course, being a lawyer, read each word carefully as my kids were excitedly asking me, on a seemingly endless loop, when we could start jumping. In a recent decision, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division considered whether the arbitration provision contained in this waiver was enforceable. It ruled that it was not, which is perhaps not surprising given the recent trend in New Jersey courts regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements. (I wrote about this trend here and here.)

In Defina, plaintiff was a minor who, through her parents, sued Sky Zone for injuries allegedly suffered at the facility. Before using the facility, plaintiff's father signed a "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." Among other things, the agreement required parties to release, discharge, and hold Sky Zone harmless for  any claims arising out of Sky Zone's "ordinary negligence." The waiver did not preclude lawsuits arising out of Sky Zone's alleged gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct, but it did require that those claims be arbitrated pursuant to a separate arbitration provision, which provided:

If  there  are  any  disputes  regarding  this agreement,  I  on  behalf  of  myself  and/or  my child(ren)  hereby  waive  any  right  I  and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that  such  dispute  shall  be brought  within one  year  of  the  date  of  this  Agreement  and will  be  determined  by  binding  arbitration before  one  arbitrator  to  be  administered  by JAMS    pursuant    to    its    Comprehensive Arbitration  Rules  and  Procedures.  I  further agree  that  the  arbitration  will take  place solely  in  the  state  of  Texas  and  that  the substantive  law  of  Texas  shall  apply.

The arbitration provision also provided that anyone who ignored the provision and sued in court would be liable to Sky Zone for $5,000 in liquidated damages. Finally, the agreement also contained a provision, in bold type, which provided that, by signing the agreement, an individual "may be found by a court of law to have waived [his or her] right to maintain a lawsuit against [Sky Zone]."

Continue reading “Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable”

NJ Supreme Court: LLP Cannot Be Converted To General Partnership For Failing To Maintain Liability Insurance

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

NJ Supreme Court (pd)On June 23, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court released its decision in Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, LLP, a case in which I had the privilege of representing the New Jersey State Bar Association as amicus curiae. (I previously wrote about the case here.) As discussed below, the Supreme Court agreed with our arguments. 

In Mortgage Grader, a former client sued the defendant law firm and each of its partners after the firm dissolved. While the firm had maintained professional liability insurance while it was actively practicing, it did not purchase a "tail" policy to cover claims that arose after it dissolved. The trial court held that this violated Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3), which requires attorneys practicing as an LLP to "obtain and maintain in good standing one or more policies of lawyers' professional liability insurance which shall insure the [LLP] against liability imposed upon it by law for damages resulting from any claim made against the [LLP] by its clients." Accordingly, the trial court held that the individual partners were not shielded from liability as they would normally be as members of an LLP and were instead vicariously liable for their partners' negligence. In other words, the trial court effectively converted the LLP to a general partnership because it failed to maintain liability insurance. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court did not have the authority to strip the individual partners of their liability protections under either Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) or the Uniform Partnership Act.

The NJSBA asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm the Appellate Division's decision. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that: (1) the insurance requirements for LLPs did not extend to the period when a firm is "winding up" its business — i.e., when it is collecting receivables but no longer providing legal services; and (2) even if they did, an LLP could not be converted to a general partnership as a "sanction" for failing to maintain liability insurance. Justice Albin wrote a separate opinion, concurring with the judgment of the majority, but suggesting that the Court Rules be amended to provide that an LLP would lose its liability protection if it failed to meet the insurance requirements, and to require LLPs to purchase tail insurance for six years following their dissolution. 

The Supreme Court's opinion can be found here.

Appellate Division Questions The “Liberal Policy In Favor of Arbitration”

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

Contract(pd)
I have written a few times recently about the enforceability of arbitration agreements. Although usually (always?) a dry topic, it has become somewhat “hot” recently in New Jersey. The Appellate Division’s published decision in Kleine v. Emeritus at Emerson is the most recent example.

In Kleine, plaintiff filed a personal injury claim against the nursing facility in which she was living. The nursing home moved to dismiss or stay the case in favor of arbitration pursuant to an arbitration provision in her admission agreement. The trial court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, and in doing so, took a number of shots at the “liberal policy favoring arbitration,” which was developed in the lower federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, and which applies even in the face of contrary state law.

 

Continue reading “Appellate Division Questions The “Liberal Policy In Favor of Arbitration””