New Jersey Court Finds Minority Tolling Provision in Med Mal Cases Not Applicable to Suit Brought on Behalf of Minor Decedent
Newark, N.J. (August 22, 2022) - On July 14, 2022, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, issued an opinion in Monk v. Kennedy University Hospital, Inc. that considered whether the New Jersey legislature intended to apply the minority tolling provision in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) to the state’s Wrongful Death Act. The appellate division vacated and remanded the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, holding that the minority tolling provision, which allows minors to file medical malpractice claims resulting from injuries until the minor is thirteen, was not applicable to lawsuits brought on behalf of minor decedents or their estates.
Plaintiffs Shenise Monk and Jordi Wilson filed claims against Kennedy University Hospital, Inc. (Kennedy) and a number of its physicians for the wrongful death of their son, J.W. Monk became pregnant with J.W. in the fall of 2015 after a documented history of pre-term deliveries and miscarriages and received prenatal care from various defendants. When she was approximately 24 weeks pregnant, Monk was admitted to Kennedy with complaints of cramping. After being discharged, she began to experience early onset labor and was readmitted to Kennedy, where J.W. was delivered by emergency Cesarean section and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit. J.W. was then transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he passed away about six months later in July 2016.
More than four years later, on October 26, 2020, the plaintiffs sued the defendants, seeking damages stemming from J.W.’s untimely death at the age of six months. The five-count complaint alleged medical malpractice, negligence, corporate negligence, and a claim pursuant to New Jersey’s Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4. The plaintiffs argued that the complaint was brought “on behalf of minor plaintiff only” and thus there were no separate claims for his parents. Accordingly, they argued that the statute of limitations was tolled by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) until J.W. would have reached the age of 13.
The defendants filed for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the two-year statute of limitations on wrongful death and survival actions. The trial court denied that motion on the basis of the minority tolling provision. The New Jersey Appellate Division granted the defendants leave to appeal and, applying a de novo review, vacated the denial of summary judgment.
The appellate court held that the minority tolling provision did not apply because the statute allows only “an action by or on behalf of a minor” and the legislature contemplated that a “minor denotes a living human being,” i.e., “an infant or person who is under the age of legal competence.” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary). The court further noted that, “[t]he stated purpose of minority tolling is to enable a minor to attain a level of life experience or comprehension sufficient to hold him or her accountable for legal decision-making, an eventuality that can never be met by a deceased minor.”
Because J.W. was deceased when the plaintiffs’ complaint was filed, the court ruled that the two-year limitations period under the Wrongful Death Act, which governed claims brought on behalf of deceased individuals, clearly applied to the plaintiffs’ case. Notwithstanding these findings, the appellate division, while vacating the trial court order, remanded the matter for consideration of the plaintiffs’ alternative argument that they had substantially complied with the two-year statute of limitations.
The decision, authored by Judge Berdote-Byrne, is wholly consistent with the manner in which courts deal with wrongful death and survival actions. The distinct causes of action under the Wrongful Death Act and the Survival Act – N.J.S.A. 2A:31-2 and 2A:15-3, respectively – each carry their own statutes of limitations. The attempt to apply the minority tolling provision of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) was certainly novel, but it lost the forest for the trees. The appellate court correctly noted the policy behind tolling the statute of limitations for a minor’s medical malpractice claim, and that it cannot extend to a deceased minor.
Aside from the expressed policy reasons, it is axiomatic that a child’s personal injury claim evolves differently than that of an adult, sometimes better, and sometimes worse. A tibia-fibula fracture in an adult is likely to heal appropriately with good union on the fracture site, assuming appropriate treatment is followed. In a toddler, the fracture may be more complex if it implicates the growth plates. On the other hand, younger bodies are often more resilient than older bodies, so the recovery may be quicker and more complete in many circumstances. There is a balance struck by the tolling of the statute of limitations that permits the parties to “wait and see” how the recovery takes place, which is also borne out by the tolling of the parents’ claim for medical expenses associated with a child’s injury. None of that is reasonably in play when the child has died from the injuries sustained.
For more information on this decision and its implications for future litigation in the Garden State, contact the authors of this alert. Visit our General Liability Practice page for additional alerts in this area.
Thomas Regan, Partner
Matthew S. AhKao, Associate