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Unkert by Unkert v. General Motors Corp.

June 4, 1997

JAMES W. UNKERT, AN INCOMPETENT BY HIS GUARDIANS AD LITEM, DENNIS J. UNKERT AND SHIRLEY A. UNKERT, AND DENNIS J. UNKERT AND SHIRLEY A. UNKERT, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, CROSS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORP., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, CROSS-APPELLANT. AND ROBERT A. ROGERS, DEFENDANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County.

Approved for Publication June 5, 1997.

Before Judges Dreier, D'Annunzio and Newman. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'annunzio, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: D'annunzio

The opinion of the court was delivered by

D'ANNUNZIO, J.A.D.

On October 25, 1988, James Unkert was operating his Chevrolet pickup truck when his vehicle crossed into the oncoming lane and collided with a dump truck. James was immediately rendered unconscious as the result of severe head injuries, including an injury to his brain stem. The injuries rendered James incompetent, and he remains so to date. He resides in a rehabilitation institution.

On March 23, 1989, plaintiffs, James' parents, were granted letters of guardianship for James. The record suggests that this was done to facilitate the collection and administration of benefits on James' behalf, such as motor vehicle personal injury protection benefits. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.

On October 22, 1990, plaintiffs sued a hospital and various health professionals on James' behalf, alleging that their negligence had caused James to suffer from a severe condition of bedsores. That case was settled for $200,000 in August 1992.

On January 7, 1993, plaintiffs filed this action against General Motors Corp. (GM) alleging that James' truck was defective because it lacked head restraints on its seats, and that this defect contributed to James' head injuries.

GM moved for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiffs filed the complaint more than two years after the cause of action had accrued, and, therefore, it was barred by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, the two-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion. It ruled that although N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 tolls the limitations period for the duration of a person's "insanity," the statute of limitations began to run when plaintiffs were appointed James' guardians in January, 1989. Therefore, the complaint against GM, filed four years later in January 1993, was barred. The court memorialized its ruling in an order dated May 10, 1996. Plaintiffs appeal.

GM cross-appeals from an order dated September 9, 1994, denying its earlier motion for summary judgment. In that motion, GM contended that the entire controversy doctrine barred this action because it should have been asserted when plaintiffs filed the medical malpractice action.

We first address the statute of limitations issue. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21 (section 21) provides:

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 to 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.

The issue is whether section 21 applies in this case and, if so, whether the appointment of a guardian for an incompetent person triggers the running of the limitations ...


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