MSZL&M’s Recent Success in Arguing Dismissal Based Upon the Summary Judgment Standard in New Jersey
By Melissa Mudry
New Jersey Court Rule 4:46-2 enables a party to move for summary judgment. The rule and its subsequent jurisprudence mandates that an award of summary judgment is warranted in instances in which there are no material facts in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Judson v. People’s Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 73 (1954).
Below are three of our firm’s recent successes in obtaining dismissal based upon the summary judgment standard in New Jersey. All of these successes occurred within the last six months and most of them upon completion of party depositions in order to secure favorable sworn factual testimony. However, we have also been successful in obtaining early dismissal of claims against our clients after proactively completing paper discovery only.
In Atlantic County, MSZL&M attorneys requested summary judgment in a motor vehicle accident case in which our client was operating a vehicle that was hit from behind. The impact from behind, in turn, caused our client to impact the plaintiff’s vehicle which was stopped directly in front of him. Deposition testimony revealed that our client was completely stopped at the time he was rear-ended, although he was stopped close to the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff opposed the motion citing Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 10 (1969) and arguing that a following car in the same lane of traffic is obligated to maintain a reasonably safe distance behind the car ahead and that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether stopping close to the plaintiff’s vehicle caused the impact to occur and/or contributed to the impact.
The court determined that Dolson v. Anastasia was not applicable as our client’s vehicle was not moving when he was impacted from behind and there was no other case law or statutory regulation requiring him to stop within a certain distance behind the plaintiff’s vehicle. Therefore, there were no genuine issues of material fact to be determined by a jury and the court granted dismissal of plaintiff’s Complaint against our client.
In Burlington County, MSZL&M attorneys requested summary judgment regarding an incorrect report to DYFS of suspected child abuse of a newborn. The plaintiff brought suit against our client and other defendants on the basis of defamation. We argued that our client’s statement was privileged as anyone making a report for suspected child abuse is immune from liability. We further argued that the privilege applied to our client since she had reasonable cause to believe that a child had been abused. The plaintiff argued that the privilege did not apply to our client and, assuming that it did, the plaintiff could still prevail if there was a showing that the privilege was abused. The applicable test was whether our client had acted in reckless disregard of the statement’s truth or falsity. The plaintiff was required to prove that our client acted in reckless disregard by clear and convincing evidence.
Discovery revealed that our client had contacted the plaintiff’s pediatrician twenty-six minutes prior to making the statement at issue and was informed that the newborn was in good health. However, discovery also revealed that our client had interpreted a nurse’s comment as directing her to the existence of a prior DYFS case. The court observed that neither errors of interpretation nor misconceptions were sufficient to create a jury issue as to reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of a defamatory statement. The court noted that it was clear that our client relied on a nurse’s statement and regardless of contacting plaintiff’s pediatrician, our client was reasonable in contacting DYFS based upon the nurse’s statement. The court found that the plaintiff had not produced evidence that would permit a rational jury to conclude, by the clear and convincing standard of proof, that our client recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of the nurse’s statement informing her of the existence of a prior DYFS case and therefore, granted dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against our client.
In Hudson County, MSZL&M attorneys requested summary judgment in a motor vehicle accident case in which our client was traveling through an intersection on a green light when a vehicle impacted him from the side. Although deposition testimony had not occurred, our client had video surveillance showing that he was proceeding through the intersection on a green light. Based upon the video surveillance and an affidavit from our client certifying as to the accuracy of the video, the court granted our summary judgment request.
Summary Judgment in New Jersey
We note, that although MSZL&M has been successful in arguing dismissal based upon the summary judgment standard, New Jersey courts generally heed on the side of caution when granting such motions. If discovery has not been completed, the courts will often deny motions for summary judgment without prejudice until all discovery has been completed. However, even at the end of the discovery period, if there is a mere scintilla of evidence that tips in the favor of a genuine factual dispute, the courts will deny summary judgment requests and save the issue for jury determination.