On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
Antell, Brody and D'Annunzio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Brody, J.A.D. D'Annunzio, J.s.c., (temporarily assigned) (concurring).
The question raised in this appeal is whether New Jersey courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over the estate of a Virginia lawyer*fn1 in a legal malpractice action brought by New Jersey residents. The trial court determined that it had personal jurisdiction and denied the estate's motion to dismiss. We granted leave to appeal and now reverse.
Plaintiffs, residents of New Jersey, engaged defendant Joseph Magazzu, a New Jersey lawyer, to represent them in
prosecuting a medical malpractice action against a Virginia medical doctor and a Virginia hospital. Plaintiffs are the surviving members of the immediate family of a young girl who was fatally injured while the family was visiting in Virginia. She had been treated in Virginia by the Virginia medical doctor and died in the Virginia hospital.
For reasons that do not appear in this record, Magazzu wrote to a particular Virginia law firm to inquire whether it would represent plaintiffs in the action. One of the firm's partners wrote back that the firm would not represent plaintiffs but recommended that Magazzu direct his inquiry to John J. Wicker, Jr., whom he described as a "former senior partner who is the only lawyer I know with the forensic ability to handle this case."
The Virginia statutory limitations period expired during the 12-month leisurely correspondence that ensued between Magazzu and Wicker. Wicker wrote Magazzu three letters. In the last, written more than two weeks after the limitations period had expired, he stated that he found no "reasonable basis on which any third party could be successfully sued as defendant." Wicker noted in that letter that when the decedent's parents, plaintiffs Warren Washington, Sr. and Almana Washington, had been to his office shortly before the limitations period had expired they "agreed with me in my opinion."
In Wicker's first letter, he asked for facts concerning the medical malpractice claims and also asked "how much money could (and would) be raised to cover the expenses of litigation (exclusive of attorneys' fees)." Magazzu supplied some facts and assured Wicker that the parents had "accumulated the sum of $1000.00 which could be deposited with you toward expenses."
In his second letter Wicker stated, "However, before any further proceedings, I would like to have a list of the names and addresses of the various parties and witnesses and also a statement of facts on which I could reasonably expect to obtain
a plaintiff's judgment [ sic ]." (Emphasis in original.) Four months before the limitations period expired, Magazzu responded with a letter in which he provided Wicker with additional information and warned him to be mindful of the Virginia statute of limitations. Having responded to Wicker's request, Magazzu may then have reasonably believed that Wicker represented plaintiffs in Virginia.
In his third and final letter, as previously noted, Wicker advised Magazzu that he had told the ...