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In re Association of Trial Lawyers of America

Decided: October 13, 1988.

IN THE MATTER OF THE ASSOCIATION OF TRIAL LAWYERS OF AMERICA, NEW JERSEY, AND CHAPTER 197 OF THE LAWS OF 1987


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Middlesex County.

Deighan, Baime and D'Annunzio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.

Baime

We granted leave to appeal to review an interlocutory order entered by the Superior Court, Chancery Division, denying the Attorney General's motion to dismiss a complaint filed by the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) challenging the constitutionality of the recently enacted Products Liability Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 et seq.). The pivotal question is whether ATLA, either in its own right or as a representative of others, has an interest in the subject matter sufficient to support this action. We hold that it does not.

The salient facts are not in dispute and are essentially a matter of public record. On July 22, 1987, our Legislature adopted the Products Liability Act. The articulated objective in enacting the statutory scheme was to clarify "certain matters

relating to actions [seeking compensation] for harm caused by products, including certain principles under which liability is imposed and the standards and procedures for the award of punitive damages." N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 a. We need not describe the Act in detail. Suffice it to say, it contains substantive provisions, setting forth rules of liability and defenses, see N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2, 3, 4, 6 and 7, and procedural requirements, see N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-5, mandating bifurcated proceedings for the determination of compensatory and punitive damages.

In January 1988, ATLA instituted an action under the federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 1983) and the New Jersey Declaratory Judgment Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 et seq.), attacking the constitutionality of the new products liability law. In its complaint, ATLA contended that the statute (1) "impaired the obligation of contracts between manufacturers and sellers of products and the public," contrary to Art. I, § 10, cl. 1 of the United States Constitution, (2) violated the cognate impairment of contracts prohibition contained in the New Jersey Constitution (Art. IV, § VII, par. 3), (3) constituted an unlawful invasion of the Supreme Court's rule-making prerogative (Art. VI, § 2, par. 3), (4) impinged upon the right to equal protection and (5) deprived litigants of the right to trial by jury.

No defendant was named in the suit. Pursuant to R. 4:28-4(a), however, ATLA notified the Attorney General of the pending action. The Attorney General intervened and immediately moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, R. 4:6-2(e), contending that ATLA lacked standing.

Following oral argument, the trial court issued a written opinion, holding that ATLA had the requisite standing to maintain the action and that its complaint presented a justiciable controversy. Noting that ATLA is a non-profit organization composed of trial attorneys, the court concluded that it could lawfully assert the rights of its members and their clients. ATLA was thus said to possess a sufficient personal stake in the litigation. The court found, alternatively, that the case

raised questions of "great public interest" sufficient to afford standing even assuming that ATLA's private interest was slight. We disagree with these conclusions and thus reverse.

As we noted at the outset of our opinion, this suit was commenced under the Declaratory Judgment Act. That statute empowers the courts to declare rights, status and other legal relations "to afford litigants relief from uncertainty and insecurity." U.S.A. Chamber of Commerce v. State, 89 N.J. 131, 140 (1982) Its purpose is to end uncertainty concerning the legal rights and relations of parties before they have suffered ineradicable damage or injury for which only a compensatory or coercive remedy can provide redress. N.J. Ass'n for Retarded Citizens v. Human Services, 89 N.J. 234, 242 (1982). See also N.J.S.A. 2A:16-52 and 53. Toward that end it has been said that the statute constitutes "remedial legislation entitled to liberal construction and administration." N.J. Ass'n for Retarded Citizens v. Human Services, supra, 89 N.J. at 241-242. See also Union Cty. Bd. of Freeholders v. Union Cty. Park Comm'n., 41 N.J. 333, 336 (1964); Burlington Tp. v. Middle Dep't. Inspection Agency, 175 N.J. Super. 624, 628 (Law Div.1980); Hammond v. Doan, 127 N.J. Super. 67, 72 (Law Div.1974); N.J.S.A. 2A:16-51.

The remedy thus provided, however, is circumscribed by the salutary qualification that the jurisdiction of the courts may not be invoked in the absence of an actual controversy. New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Parsons, 3 N.J. 235, 240 (1949) Although there is no express language in New Jersey's Constitution similar to its federal counterpart which confines the exercise of our judicial power to actual cases and controversies, compare U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, with N.J. Const., Art. VI, § I, we have long held that we will not render advisory opinions or function in the abstract. Crescent Pk. Tenants Assoc. v. Realty Eq. Corp. of N.Y., 58 N.J. 98, 107 (1971). Nor will we entertain proceedings ...


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