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Horton v. American Institute for Mental Studies

Decided: December 21, 1976.

JAMES B. HORTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR MENTAL STUDIES, WILLIAM MARTINELLI, PANDULLO CHRISBACHER AND ASSOCIATES, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY AND IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS, AND AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR MENTAL STUDIES, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. CLAYTON CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, DIVISION OF RESIDEX CORPORATION AND ADAMS AND REHMANN, PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS



Miller, J.c.c., Temporarily Assigned.

Miller

This is a motion for summary judgment based, in substance, upon the premise that the thrust of the plaintiff's case does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted as to defendant Pandullo Chrisbacher and Associates, R. 4:6-2(e). In the present posture neither the pleadings nor any discovery discloses a cause of action against him. Plaintiff counters by arguing that such motion is premature because certain depositions have not yet been taken. Significantly, plaintiff is not the party originating such depositions but the inference is that such depositions might dredge up a cause of action against this defendant.

The question presented is when, if at all, a plaintiff's right to pursue a defendant through the discovery process is cut off. No court cheerfully disposes of any case save on the merits, since the aim of our judicial system is to dispense justice, not to pile up statistics. The object is to dispose of cases on the merits and as fairly as possible and as quickly as justice and fair dealing permit.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that both sides have rights. A defendant is as entitled to be speedily rid of baseless claims as a plaintiff is entitled to raise them. The summary judgment process was created to take care of this state of affairs whenever the frame of reference permits its invocation.

A lawsuit may be considered a syllogism, thus:

Major premise = statement of legal principles applicable.

Minor premise = statement of facts bringing major premise into play.

Conclusion = judgment for plaintiff.

Obviously, a plaintiff must establish both major and minor premises in order to prevail. Equally obviously, a defendant must prevail if he strikes down either premise. He may attack the major premise under R. 4:6-2(e) or he may attack either major or minor premise under R. 4:46. It is, of course, quite possible that plaintiff may state a perfectly valid cause of action and fall short in his search for facts to sustain it.

While the ambit of R. 4:46 is broad enough to permit summary judgment motions at any time after the expiration of 20 days from the service of the moving party's pleadings, and while R. 4:5-2 requires a pleading to "contain a statement of the facts on which the claim is based," the better practice in most cases is to wait until the case has matured and the discovery process has afforded ample opportunity for all parties to have explored the facts before proceeding to attack the minor premise under R. 4:46. Courts are aware of the sophisticated nature of certain types of modern litigation such as medical malpractice or products liability suits, and they take into account the fact that time is frequently required in many such cases to sort out the myriad ramifications of current-day technology. This has given rise to the popular theory that ours is a "notice pleading" practice, a superficial and inaccurate belief. Even if it were true (and R. 4:5-2 thus ignored), there must inexorably come a time when a plaintiff must respond to an attack upon his case, whether it be upon his major or his minor premise. No system of justice can permit a plaintiff to file a complaint and continue discovery forever. A summons may perhaps be a fishing license but it most certainly is not a hunting license.

Our Supreme Court disposed of this problem in a substantially similar case early in the days of our present system. In Grobart v. Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures , 2 N.J. 136 (1949), the trial judge had entered judgment on the pleadings against defendant. ...


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