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Hartsfield v. Fantini

June 27, 1997

MARY C. HARTSFIELD, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
FRED M. FANTINI, XYZ, INC. (FICTITIOUS NAME), KENTON SCRIVENS, JOHN DOE (FICTITIOUS NAME), AND HELEN E. MATTHEWS, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY AND/OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS, AND BEST FOR YOU AUTO SALES, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



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).

Mary C. Hartsfield v. Fred M. Fantini, et als. (A-115-96)

Argued March 17, 1997 -- Decided June 27, 1997

GARIBALDI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal, as in Wallace v. JFK Hartwyck, also decided this date, the Court determines whether an attorney, who fails to appeal an arbitration decision within the thirty-day filing deadline, may file a nunc pro tunc motion for a trial de novo.

Mary Hartsfield was injured in an automobile accident in January 1991. Thereafter, in January 1993, she filed a personal injury suit against the driver and owner of the vehicle that had struck her vehicle. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-25, the matter was scheduled for arbitration in Burlington County on December 7, 1994. On the date of the arbitration, the arbitrators rendered an award in Hartsfield's favor in an amount substantially less than that offered by the owner and driver of the other vehicle prior to the arbitration.

Immediately following the arbitration, Hartsfield's attorney, David Daniels, advised the attorney for the driver and owner of the other vehicle that he would appeal the arbitration award by filing a request for a trial de novo. Daniels, however, failed to file the request within the thirty-day period prescribed by the arbitration statute. Instead, he filed a motion to petition for a trial de novo out of time, maintaining that his failure to have filed a timely request for trial de novo was the result of secretarial error and a breakdown in his case management system. The attorney for the driver and owner of the other vehicle filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award.

The trial court held that Daniel's internal failure in his office did not constitute the "extraordinary circumstances" necessary to allow the motion for trial de novo to be filed out of time. The court, therefore, confirmed the arbitration award and dismissed Hartsfield's suit. Hartsfield appealed to the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court's denial of her motion, holding that an attorney's failure to supervise his or her staff is generally insufficient to permit an attorney to make a late demand for trial de novo.

The Supreme Court granted Hartsfield's petition for certification.

HELD: An attorney's failure to supervise staff or to manage a heavy workload is insufficient to satisfy the "extraordinary circumstances" exception to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-31, which requires requests for trial de novo to be made within thirty days of an arbitration determination. Thus Daniels' failure to review his diary and to ensure that his secretary followed his instructions cannot be characterized as "extraordinary circumstances" sufficient to relax the thirty-day time limitation.

1. An examination of the personal injury arbitration statutes discloses that the Legislature sought to preserve judicial resources, while also preserving an individual's right to a jury trial by providing a person dissatisfied with an arbitration determination with the right to request a trial de novo. (pp. 4-5)

2. The Legislature intended Rule 4:21A-6(b)(1), which requires any dissatisfied party to file a request for trial de novo within thirty days, to be strictly enforced. (pp. 5-6)

3. Courts have used the "extraordinary circumstance" standard while stressing the need for strict enforcement of the thirty-day rule to foster finality and to conserve resources. (pp. 6-7)

4. Although the determination of the existence of an "extraordinary circumstance" requires a fact-sensitive analysis in each case, generally, a claim of substantial compliance with the filing limitation and allegations that defendants used negotiations to lull plaintiffs into missing the filing date will not ...


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