On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 248 N.J. Super. 128 (1991).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J.
Prior to January 1, 1973, the two-year statute of limitations for personal-injury actions, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, was tolled for minor plaintiffs until they attained the age of twenty-one. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21. The Legislature's enactment of Laws 1972, chapter 81 (chapter 81 or the age-of-majority statute), effective January 1, 1973, has generated twenty years of uncertainty over the question whether that enactment was intended to change from twenty-one years to eighteen years the age until which that statute of limitations is tolled. We recently acknowledged the conflicting decisions on the question in Apgar v. Lederle Laboratories, 123 N.J. 450, 454-55, 588 A.2d 380 (1991). In a published opinion, the Appellate Division held that chapter 81 did not modify N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, thereby determining that twenty-one years continues to be the age until which the various statutes of limitation referred to in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 are tolled. Green v. Auerbach Chevrolet Corp., 248 N.J. Super. 128, 132-34, 590 A.2d 678 (1991). We granted certification. 126 N.J. 339, 598 A.2d 896 (1991). We conclude, contrary to the
Appellate Division, that chapter 81 modified N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, with the result that the relevant statutes of limitation are tolled until a plaintiff attains eighteen rather than twenty-one years of age.
Plaintiff, Andrew Green, born November 14, 1964, was seventeen years of age when he sustained personal injuries in an automobile accident on May 2, 1982. Green had been driving his parents' 1980 Chevrolet, purchased by Green's father in 1979 from defendant, Auerbach Chevrolet Corp. (Auerbach). The car veered off the road and hit a telephone pole, allegedly because of a defective steering mechanism that Auerbach had failed to repair.
Green filed suit against Auerbach and General Motors Corporation on May 2, 1984, when Green was nineteen years of age, but the complaint was dismissed without prejudice about a year later because of Green's failure to answer interrogatories. See Rule 4:23-5(a). Green filed a second complaint against Auerbach as the sole defendant on October 26, 1987, a few weeks before he attained the age of twenty-three. In September 1989, Auerbach amended its answer to the complaint to set forth a statute-of-limitations defense.
Auerbach moved for summary judgment. Relying on N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, as well as several Appellate Division decisions interpreting N.J.S.A. 9:17B-1 to -3, Auerbach contended that Green was required to have filed the second complaint within two years of November 14, 1982, his eighteenth birthday. The Law Division granted Auerbach's motion for summary judgment. As noted, the Appellate Division reversed, observing that principles of statutory construction support "acceptance of retention by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 of the 21-year age standard," and concluding that the second complaint had been timely filed because the statute of limitations had been tolled
until Green attained the age of twenty-one. 248 N.J. Super. at 133-34, 590 A.2d 678.
N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1 to -34 prescribes the statutory limitation periods for various causes of actions. Several of those limitation periods, including the two-year statute of limitations for personal-injury actions, are tolled by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 (the tolling provision):
If any person entitled to any of the actions or proceedings specified in sections 2A:14-1 to 2A:14-8 or sections 2A:14-16 to 2A:14-20 of this title or to a right or title of entry under section 2A:14-6 of this title is or shall be, at the time of any such cause of action or right or title accruing, under the age of 21 years, or insane, such person may commence such action or make such entry, within such time as limited by said sections, after his coming to or being of full age or of sane mind.
Effective January 1, 1973, the Legislature lowered the age of majority in New Jersey from twenty-one to eighteen. L. 1972, c. 81 (codified at N.J.S.A. 9:17B-1 to -3). N.J.S.A. 9:17B-1 consists of a legislative declaration of intent, pending revision and amendment of other statutes, to extend to eighteen-year-olds the basic civil and contractual rights and obligations that previously had been available only to those twenty-one years of age or older:
The Legislature finds and declares and by this act intends, pending the revision and amendment of the many statutory provisions involved, to:
a. Extend to persons 18 years of age and older the basic civil and contractual rights and obligations heretofore applicable only to persons 21 years of age or older, including the right to contract, sue, be sued and defend civil actions, apply for and be appointed to public employment, apply for and be granted a license or authority to engage in a business or profession subject to State regulation, serve on juries, marry, adopt children, attend and participate in horse race meetings and parimutuel betting and other legalized games and gaming, except as otherwise provided in subsection c. of this section, sell, purchase and consume alcoholic beverages, act as an incorporator, registered agent or director of a corporation, consent to medical and surgical treatment, execute a will, and to inherit, purchase, mortgage or otherwise encumber and convey real and personal property.
b. Abolish the right of a person between the ages of 18 and 21 years to disaffirm and be relieved of contractual ...