On July 14, 2022, the Appellate Division issued an opinion in the matter of Monk v. Kennedy University Hospital, Inc. (A-3361-20). The opinion, which was approved for publication, considered whether the Legislature intended to apply the minority tolling provision to the Wrongful Death Act. The court ultimately determined that it did not.
The plaintiffs, Shenise Monk and Jordi Wilson, filed a complaint on behalf of their deceased son, J.W. Id. at *3. The plaintiffs sought damages stemming from their son’s untimely death at the age of six months. Ibid. The five-count complaint alleged medical malpractice, negligence, corporate negligence, and a claim pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4.
However, the complaint was filed more than four (4) years after J.W.’s death. Id. at *4. The defendants, therefore, filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the complaint was untimely and barred by the two (2) year statute of limitations applicable to most injury cases. Id. at *3. The plaintiffs opposed the motion primarily by arguing that the statute was tolled by the minority tolling provision of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a). The trial court agreed and denied the motion, and the above appeal followed.
On appeal, the plaintiffs conceded that although the complaint alleged negligence and medical malpractice regarding Ms. Monk’s prenatal care and J.W.’s delivery and care at Kennedy, “[t]he instant matter [wa]s being brought on behalf of [m]inor plaintiff only.” Id. at *4. Consequently, the plaintiffs argued that as no claims were brought on behalf of the parents, the minority tolling provision applied to render the complaint timely filed. Id. at *6.
In considering the appeal, the Appellate Division began with a review of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a). The panel noted that “[i]n 2004, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) and N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 to limit minority tolling in cases of medical malpractice, only for injuries sustained at birth, to age thirteen, not age eighteen.” Id. at *10 (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21). Upon reviewing and adopting the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of a “minor,” the court found that a “minor” could include only “a living human being: ‘an infant or person who is under the age of legal competence.’” Id. at *7 (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1193 (11th ed. 2019)).
Based upon this definition, the panel concluded, “the concept of minority tolling has no logical application to a decedent’s claims, even where the decedent was a minor when he or she passed away. The purpose of the minority tolling is to preserve claims until the minor achieves sufficient maturity to be held accountable for the assertion of legal rights, a circumstance that ceases to exist once a minor dies.” Id. at *11-12. The court further saw “no reason whatsoever why the kin of a minor should be favored over those of an adult under such circumstances.” Id. at *13.
Notwithstanding the above findings, the Appellate Division—while vacating the trial court’s Order—remanded the matter for further consideration of the plaintiff’s alternative argument of substantial compliance. An issue that had not been addressed by the court below. Id. at *14-15.
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