Robert W. O'hagan, J.s.c.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'hagan
ROBERT W. O'HAGAN, J.S.C.
This controversy involves post-trial disputes which require interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.3, pertaining to entitlement to economic damages and the determination of whether defendants might properly seek contribution from plaintiff on account of their settlement with a co-plaintiff. The court notes the argument that one of the defendants, a corporation, is responsible for the independent contractual positions taken by its now impecunious shareholder on the stated grounds the corporation is the alter ego of the shareholder.
The essential facts underlying this dispute are stated as follows:
William King and Hildegard Bustard were tragically killed in a fire occurring at premises situated in Red Bank, New Jersey. Representatives of the decedents brought suit against Condorp, a New Jersey corporation, Carol Revolinsky, Bruce Thompson (Thompson), Elaine Sourlis, Theodore Sourlis, and Estimate Design Services, a New Jersey corporation, (EDS). Following the summations, immediately prior to the court's charge, defendants settled with representatives of the estate of Bustard, apparently for $150,000. At the close of plaintiff's case, Theodore Sourlis was dismissed from the case upon motion, and ultimately the jury determined Elaine Sourlis was not negligent in any fashion. The jury found that EDS bore 55% of the responsibility for the occurrence of the fire as a result of their substandard electrical work performed some years earlier at a time when the Sourlis defendants owned the premises in question. Thompson was determined to be the owner of the unit and was found to be 17.5% responsible for the extent of the damage and injuries as a result of deficiencies involving the smoke detector in this residential condominium unit. Condorp was determined to be the owner of the unit and similarly was found to be 17.5% responsible for the same underlying reason. Finally, the late William King was found to be 10% responsible for the damage and injuries resulting from the fire as he had caused a smoke detector to be inoperable.
To state the jury verdict more directly, it was determined that plaintiff and certain defendants were negligent, which negligence was a proximate cause of the fire and/or the consequences of the fire. In response to a special written interrogatory, the jury went on to allocate or apportion responsibility. Finally, the jury awarded plaintiff, Cynthia Quenet, as representative of the estate of King, $200,000 for the pain and suffering he sustained, along with $200,000 for the financial loss suffered by Cynthia Quenet and other family members. In addition, the jury awarded full reimbursement of funeral and burial expenses.
Given the timing of the settlement with the Bustard plaintiffs, the verdict sheet, already prepared, was presented to the jury, including the claim of the representative of the Bustard estate.
Cynthia Quenet argues that, notwithstanding King's negligence, the estate's recovery for economic damages may not be reduced contending that the 1987 amendment to N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.3 precludes such reduction. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.3b provides:
the party so recovering may recover as follows:
b. the full amount of economic damages plus the percentage of non-economic damages directly attributable to that party's negligence from any party determined by the trier of the fact to be more than 20% but less than 60% responsible for the total damages.
Plaintiff maintains, therefore, that while the recovery for pain and suffering, i.e. non-economic loss, may be reduced by 10%, matching the jury's determination of King's negligence, the Legislature clearly intended ...