As 2014 begins, it is important to note the developments in New Jersey law over the past year that may affect product liability litigation. Two of the more interesting decisions rendered during the past year are Town of Kearny v. Brandt, 214 N.J. 76, 83 (2013), and Villanueva v. Zimmer, 431 N.J. Super. 301 (App. Div. 2013).
In Brandt, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that when claims against a defendant are dismissed under New Jersey’s Statute of Repose, the jury may still apportion fault to the dismissed defendant under the Comparative Negligence Act and the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law. The Brandt ruling is significant because it establishes that defendants who are dismissed under the statute shall remain on the verdict sheet and are considered “parties” by the fact finder when allocating fault. This is important for manufacturers of products that are installed contemporaneously with improvements to real property because the statute imposes a 10-year limit on actions against parties responsible for the design, planning, supervision or construction of improvements to real property. Architects, engineers and contractors who may be immune from liability to the plaintiff under the statute may still go on the verdict sheet, where their respective percentages of fault can be determined by the fact finder. Accordingly, manufacturers of products that do not qualify for protection under the statute will not be forced to pay a disproportionate share of a judgment simply because the statute does not apply to them.
Villanueva, another notable decision rendered during 2013, establishes that Social Security Administration (SSA) findings regarding disability are generally considered inadmissible hearsay in subsequent personal injury actions. In particular, the Villanueva court held that a SSA disability finding was inadmissible hearsay and did not meet the requirements of the “public records” hearsay exception contained in N.J.R.E. 803(c)(8). The Villanueva court also found that the SSA disability finding was unduly prejudicial to the defendant and likely to mislead the jury, and accordingly it was deemed inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 403. In that regard, the Villanueva court concluded that the introduction of the SSA disability finding could “cause the jury, despite the questionable utility of the determination with respect to causation, to inappropriately give weight, based on the fact that the SSA is a government agency, to its conclusions that the plaintiff suffered a disability and was unable to work and to find, therefore, that this was due to defendant’s negligence.” It should be noted, however, that the Villanueva court did not rule on whether it would be possible for an SSA disability determination to become admissible if a defendant somehow “opens the door.” As such, attorneys should refrain from suggesting to the jury that no one has ever determined that an injured plaintiff is disabled if in fact the SSA has made such a finding. Such a statement could open the door, and render a SSA disability determination admissible for purposes of impeachment.