On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Stein and Coleman join in Justice GARIBALDI's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Stewart G. Wallace v. JFK Hartwyck at Oak Tree, Inc., et als. (A-119-96)
Argued March 17, 1997 -- Decided June 27, 1997
GARIBALDI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, as in Hartsfield v. Fantini, also decided this date, the Court determines when an attorney's mistake, resulting in failure to appeal an arbitration decision within thirty days, constitutes "extraordinary circumstances" sufficient to allow a party to file for a trial de novo out of time.
Stewart Wallace was injured when he slipped and fell in a nursing facility where he had been assigned to work as a nurse's aid. Following the fall, Wallace filed a negligence action against the facility (Hartwyck). Thereafter, on January 18, 1996, nonbinding arbitration was held. The arbitrators found Hartwyck 100% liable for Wallace's injuries and awarded him $275,000 in damages. Although a witness to the accident, who disputed Wallace's version of the accident, was unavailable to testify at the arbitration, the arbitrators were made aware of his version of events.
Following the arbitration, Hartwyck's counsel, Christopher Weber, told Wallace's counsel that he would most likely file for a trial de novo. However, he noted that he would wait until the end of the thirty-day period to file because, in Union County, trial was generally scheduled to begin shortly after a trial de novo request is granted by the court. The attorneys agreed to continue discovery in preparation for trial.
Weber missed the February 20, 1996, deadline for filing for a trial de novo, having posted a reminder on his calendar on the incorrect date of February 29, 1996. During the thirty days following the arbitration, Weber had continued to work on the case extensively. On February 26, 1996, Weber prepared and mailed the trial de novo notice, six days out of time. The court returned it to him shortly thereafter.
On February 28, 1996, plaintiff's counsel filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award. Weber filed a cross-motion to permit the filing of a notice of demand for trial de novo. The trial court granted the motion to confirm the arbitration award and denied the motion to permit the filing for a trial de novo out of time. The trial court found that, although Weber had made an honest mistake, more was required to grant a motion for a trial de novo out of time. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision for the reasons set forth in its oral opinion.
The Supreme Court granted Hartwyck's petition for certification.
HELD: An attorney's mere carelessness or lack of proper diligence does not constitute "extraordinary circumstances" and is insufficient to relax the thirty-day limitation set forth in Rule 4:21A-6(b)(1) for the filing of a request for trial de novo.
1. When a party fails to file a request for trial de novo within thirty days of an arbitration award, the trial court may extend the deadline if "extraordinary circumstances" exist. That determination, however, is fact ...