In its unpublished opinion filed on January 2, 2019, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division (“New Jersey Appellate Court”) held that the discovery rule did not apply in a New Jersey medical malpractice case so that the complaint was timely filed after the statute of limitations had run.
The Underlying Facts
The New Jersey medical malpractice plaintiff filed his complaint on January 4, 2016, alleging that he was born in a hospital on January 4, 1995; that on that date, the defendants performed a surgical procedure during his birth; and, “As a direct and proximate result of defendant[s’] failure to exercise the skill, knowledge, and expertise required by [their] profession,” the defendants “caused [him] to suffer severe pain and injury during the birth in which the [d]efendants were involved, which has subsequently plagued him for his entire life as a juvenile.”
At the time of the plaintiff’s birth on January 4, 1995, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 provided that medical malpractice actions had to “be commenced within two years next after the cause of any such action shall have accrued.” However, well-established case law made clear that the statute of limitations on a personal injury claim by a minor was tolled until the minor reached the age of majority, which in this case was eighteen. Thus, the plaintiff had the right to bring a New Jersey medical malpractice action against the defendants for the injuries he allegedly sustained at the time of his birth until January 4, 2015, which was two years after he reached age eighteen on January 4, 2013. However, the plaintiff did not file his complaint against the defendants until January 4, 2016, which was one year after the expiration of the governing statute of limitations.
The New Jersey Appellate Court stated that when a complaint fails to make the necessary factual allegations and claims for relief, the pleading must be deemed inadequate. The resulting motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim may not be denied based on the possibility that discovery may establish the requisite claim; rather, the legal requisites for plaintiff’s claim must be apparent from the complaint itself.
The New Jersey Appellate Court held: “Based on our indulgent reading of plaintiff’s complaint, we are satisfied that it was properly dismissed by the trial judge. On its face, the complaint states that defendants injured plaintiff through their negligence during a surgical procedure they performed on January 4, 1995. The complaint further states that plaintiff was “plagued” by these injuries “for his entire life as a juvenile.” Thus, the complaint states that plaintiff was fully aware of his injury and the cause of his injury while he was a minor. Accordingly, plaintiff had until January 4, 2015, two years after he reached the age of eighteen, to file his complaint. However, he did not do so until January 4, 2016. “[W]here, as here, the bar of the statute of limitations appear[ed] on the face of the complaint,” the judge properly granted defendants’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim under R. 4:6-2(e).”
Under New Jersey’s discovery rule, a cause of action accrues when the facts presented would alert a reasonable person, exercising ordinary diligence, that he or she was injured due to the fault of another. Thus, the accrual date, and the resultant computation of the time limit, begins when a plaintiff knows or should know of the essential facts to advance a cause of action. A plaintiff does not need to know the legal effect or “specific basis for legal liability” for a claim to accrue once the material facts of the case are known.
In order for a trial court to consider whether the discovery rule might apply in a particular case, however, the plaintiff must adequately plead it. This is so because the burden of specifically pleading facts in the complaint showing the date plaintiff reasonably could have learned of the injury rests upon the plaintiff.
The New Jersey Appellate Court held that the discovery rule did not apply to the plaintiff’s complaint to save it from being dismissed in this case, stating: “Here, plaintiff’s complaint does not contain any allegations concerning the date he reasonably could have learned of the wrongful cause of his alleged injuries if, in fact, he did not accrue this knowledge prior to reaching the age of eighteen. Plaintiff does not allege that he lacked knowledge that defendants caused his injuries prior to January 4, 2013, or that he failed to make any causal connection between the “severe pain and injury” he sustained “during [his] birth” and which “subsequently plagued him for his entire life as a juvenile[,]” and the surgery defendants performed on that date.”
Source Bonet v. Mondesten, Docket No. A-1797-17T3.
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