New Jersey commenced its first COVID-19 era criminal jury trial in September in Bergen County, and an emergent application to the Appellate Division was filed even before opening statements began. The criminal defense attorneys raised a concern as to whether the resulting jury pool represented a cross-section of the community at large. The outcome of the Appellate Division’s decision could impact civil jury trials as they also begin.
To comply with social distancing rules and to curb the chance of spreading the virus, the New Jersey courts implemented a virtual preliminary screening process for prospective jurors in civil and criminal cases. In the criminal case before the Appellate Division, defense lawyers argued that the process excludes those jurors who do not have access to a computer or the internet. The trial judge denied defendant’s motion, but the Appellate Division granted a stay of the trial until defense counsel’s emergent application could be heard. The matter is to be fully submitted to the court by October 7th.
The Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey was granted leave to file an amicus curiae brief. The court also invited the Office of the Public Defender to appear as amicus. The court has not yet decided whether to grant oral argument on the application.
The court’s decision could affect the jury selection process in both civil and criminal cases moving forward, especially if the court rules in favor of the defense. The decision may likely be followed in neighboring states, including New York. New Jersey has commenced limited jury trials in three counties. The five counties that make up New York City are advising attorneys that no civil jury trials will be being commenced until 2021, and possibly not until the summer.
We will follow this story and its implications on the jury selection process moving forward.
It certainly does, as Sofya Reznik learned when she sued American Honda in New Jersey for alleged product liability and personal injuries. She claimed the company defectively designed and manufactured her Acura’s seatbelt and airbag, which in turn exacerbated injuries she sustained in an accident with another vehicle. That collision resulted when Sofya made an unsafe left turn, according to the court, leaving her with little claim against the other driver. She immediately contemplated a lawsuit against Honda, yet she did not preserve the car or the seatbelt as evidence or for inspection by Honda. The lower court dismissed her lawsuit, and the appellate court affirmed. Here’s why.
After the accident Sofya was transported for medical care. Her friend retrieved her personal items from the Acura, and claims to have noticed the driver’s side seatbelt was torn and hanging from the driver’s side window. An EMT who assisted Sofya stated that if he had seen a torn seatbelt, it would be mentioned in his report. It was not. Nor could he say whether a first responder cut the belt to help extricate her from the car. He did observe that the driver’s airbag had deployed. No photographs were taken of the Acura or the allegedly defective seatbelt.
Then Sofya made it worse. She accepted a “total loss” payment from her insurance company but took no steps to preserve the Acura or the seatbelt. Eventually it was sent out of the country and could not be retrieved. As her lawsuit proceeded, Honda moved for dismissal, both because Sofya could not prove any defect, and the failure to preserve the evidence warranted sanctions for spoliation of evidence. The trial court found that Sofya had a duty to preserve the evidence. That duty arose the day after the accident, when she determined to sue Honda. The Acura was needed to prove her case and to allow Honda to inspect it and defend the case. The trial court held that the absence of the evidence was probably fatal to her case, ordering dismissal of the lawsuit. Sofya appealed.
The appellate court took spoliation a step further. It held that it does not matter that Sofya may not have intended to frustrate Honda’s defense. It was enough that she was negligent in failing to preserve the Acura, as she knew she planned to sue Honda and gave no explanation for doing nothing to preserve it. The prejudice to Honda’s defense “was so significant that dismissal was the only option.” The dismissal was with prejudice.
The case of Reznik v. American Honda Motor Co., decided September 1, 2020, reminds us that principles of spoliation of evidence apply to defendants and plaintiffs alike. The obligation to preserve evidence arises as soon as one has reason to believe that a claim or litigation may result, for or against that party, from an event, breach of contract, or other potentially culpable conduct or omission.
It should be obvious. This is as much a lesson for personal-injury attorneys as it is a lecture in the law. The case and the lesson grow out of a slip-and-fall injury in September 2016. Carolyn took the fall on the steps of a hospital where her son-in-law had just had surgery. She suffered a broken nose and cuts above the eye, among other injuries. Three days later Carolyn hired a lawyer to pursue a claim against the hospital. Fifteen months later, with no lawsuit yet filed, Carolyn died of unrelated causes. The lawyer had no idea that she had died.
Nine months passed. Then, in September 2018, and just before the running of the statute of limitations, the lawyer filed Carolyn’s lawsuit against the hospital. He still did not know of her death. Discovery began in the suit, and the lawyer wrote to his client to discuss the discovery. Carolyn, of course, did not respond. In time the lawyer searched public records and discovered, at last, that his client had died over a year before. He had filed a court complaint for a dead person. What was he to do?
In March and April 2019, the lawyer wrote to Carolyn’s son, who agreed to continue the personal-injury suit in the name of her estate, under the Survivor’s Act. The lawyer asked the hospital to consent to an amended complaint naming the estate as plaintiff, and having it relate back to the September 2018 filing. The hospital refused, and in October 2019 the lawyer filed a motion asking the court for the same amendment and grace period. Otherwise, the complaint would be time-barred and dismissed. But would the court agree?
This was now three years after the accident, fifteen months after Carolyn’s death, and thirteen months after the end of the statute of limitations. Had Carolyn died after filing suit, the substitution of her estate would be no problem. But a dead person has no standing to file a lawsuit. The appellate court quoted from a 1945 Chancery case: “an earthly court has no jurisdiction over the dead. Only the living can litigate here.”
And so it was. The original complaint was a nullity, ruled the court, “leaving nothing for the amended complaint to ‘relate back’ to.” The court denied the motion and ordered the original complaint dismissed with prejudice.
The lesson is clear: make sure your client is living before filing her lawsuit.
An appellate court in New Jersey says that it is. In Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Penske Truck Leasing, Co., CEVA Freight, LLC, and Michael Kika, a recently published decision, the Appellate Division ruled that a self-insured must submit to mandatory arbitration in regard to a PIP reimbursement claim. An arbitrator, not a court, will decide whether the self-insured was negligent and must reimburse the PIP carrier. The decision is important because it is the first such published opinion.
Mix a safe, a blowtorch, and $4,000,000 in pearls, and you have a dandy insurance coverage fight. Companion Trading Company, a New York business, purchased a safe from Mega Security Company, in New Jersey. Companion used the safe to store semi-precious jewelry, including pearls at its New York location. For some reason the safe door became immovable, and Companion called Mega in to investigate. Mega’s technician could not open the door, and so arranged to ship the safe back to New Jersey for further work. Over several days Mega employees and an outside technician worked on the safe in vain at Mega’s headquarters. Finally, they opened the safe by using a blowtorch. When Companion got it back and checked the contents, they saw that a valuable cache of pearls had been damaged.