This action presents an issue not otherwise reported in New Jersey. The issue is whether a single plaintiff may sue multiple defendants in a single action in the Special Civil Part and recover a judgment which is no more than $5,000 each against the individual defendants but which totals over $5,000 against all defendants. This opinion concludes that the total judgment in such a circumstance may not exceed $5,000.
The plaintiff at one time was engaged to be married to the defendant Eunice Marzulli. While engaged, he had given her an engagement ring and money, and also while engaged, advanced money to her father. This case was submitted to a jury which found that the ring and money were conditional gifts, to be returned if the engagement was terminated. It was terminated, but the defendants had not returned the ring or the money to the plaintiff. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the plaintiff for $2,000 on the first count (the value of the ring, which had been sold by Eunice); $3,000 on the second count
(the money advanced to Eunice); and $1,000 on the third count (the money advanced to Eunice's father).
N.J.S.A. 2A:6-34 provides that:
(a) Every action of a civil nature at law, other than a proceeding in lieu of prerogative writ, and every action to recover any penalty imposed or authorized by any law of this State, where the debt, balance, penalty, damage or other matter in dispute does not exceed the sum or value of $5,000.00, exclusive of costs, shall be cognizable in the special civil part of the Superior Court.
This case requires the application of that statutory section. Where a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no need to apply the various guides to the interpretation of a statute. Watt v. Mayor and Council of Bor. of Franklin, 21 N.J. 274, 277 (1956). I find this statute to be clear and unambiguous, notwithstanding the plaintiff's contention that the "debt, balance . . . or other matter in dispute" must be determined by reference to the claim against each defendant separately; that the claims are not to be aggregated. His position is based on the premise that there were three separate and distinct counts, each spelling out a separate cause of action, and that the causes against no defendant exceeded the sum or value of $5,000.
The phrase "every action" controls the issue. Judge Conford, in his concurring opinion in Ricciardi v. Rabin, 79 N.J. Super. 7, 11 (App.Div.1963), said "The term 'action' is a word of art in this context and should be so read in this statute."
If it is the view of the courts that the County district court should have jurisdiction in every action wherein no individual count or cause of action pleaded exceeds a given sum (e.g., $3,000 in tort actions), I suggest the appropriate course is to request legislative action by way of amendment. Compare, e.g., N.J.S. 2A:15-47.1
Practical recognition by the draftsmen of our rules of practice that an action remains a single action notwithstanding the joinder therein of separate ...