On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Gloucester County.
Antell, Shebell and Muir. The opinion of the court was delivered by, Antell, P.J.A.D.
[206 NJSuper Page 373] Defendants appeal and plaintiffs cross-appeal from a judgment for money damages and reasonable attorneys' fees upon a jury verdict for plaintiffs under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 et seq. The suit is based upon a claim of fraudulent concealment of a defective septic system within a home sold by defendants to plaintiffs. Although the parties argue issues touching upon the sufficiency
of the evidence, instructions to the jury and the amount of the award, we address ourselves solely to the question of whether the Consumer Fraud Act applies to the sale by a homeowner of a one-family home. This issue is raised by the court sua sponte since, in our view, it is so basic to plaintiffs' right of recovery as to implicate plain error. If the jury was permitted to award damages under a statute which the legislature never intended to apply to the facts of the case, such error would unquestionably be "clearly capable of producing an unjust result," requiring correction by us in the interests of justice. R. 2:10-2. See Atlas v. Silvan, 128 N.J. Super. 247, 252-253 (App.Div.1974). Accordingly, we raised the question at oral argument and directed the filing of supplemental briefs which have now been submitted.
The relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 56:8-2, provides:
The act, use or employment by any person of any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment, suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise or real estate, or with the subsequent performance of such person as aforesaid, whether or not any person has in fact been misled, deceived or damaged thereby, is declared to be an unlawful practice; provided, however, that nothing herein contained shall apply to the owner or publisher of newspapers, magazines, publications or printed matter wherein such advertisement appears, or to the owner or operator of a radio or television station which disseminates such advertisement when the owner, publisher, or operator has no knowledge of the intent, design or purpose of the advertiser. [Emphasis ours]
We particularly observe that the opening language of the enactment manifests the lawmakers' concern with unconscionable "commercial" practices. For violations thereof N.J.S.A. 56:8-19 allows recovery of treble damages, reasonable attorneys' fees, filing fees and reasonable costs of suit.
The sponsor's statement accompanying the original legislation contains the following:
The purpose of this bill is to permit the Attorney General to combat the increasingly widespread practice of defrauding the consumer. The authority conferred will provide effective machinery to investigate and prohibit deceptive
and fraudulent advertising and selling practices which have caused extensive damage to the public.
When he signed the original Act Governor Meyner stated that this "legislation gives us new weapons to police against commercial abuses." Office of the Governor, Press Release (June 9, 1960), quoted in 7 Seton Hall Legislative Journal 45-46 (1983).
It has been noted that the judiciary has recognized a need to place reasonable limits upon the operation of the Act "despite broad statutory language, so that its enforcement properly reflects legislative intent, however ascertained." Jones v. Sportelli, 166 N.J. Super. 383, 388 (Law Div.1979). For example, in Daaleman v. Elizabethtown Gas Co., 77 N.J. 267 (1978), the Supreme Court held that certain allegedly fraudulent billing manipulations by a privately owned public utility was not subject to the Act. It was determined that such activities did not ...