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Negron v. Llarena

July 23, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler, J.

Argued September 23, 1997

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

In this case, the decedent died following medical treatment for injuries suffered in an automobile accident in New Jersey. His surviving wife, a New York resident, commenced a wrongful death action in New York federal district court. Jurisdiction was purportedly based on diversity of citizenship, the defendant being a New Jersey hospital. Shortly thereafter the case was transferred to New Jersey federal district court. Following the transfer of the action, the plaintiff amended the complaint, joining two additional defendants, the treating doctors who were staff physicians of the defendant hospital and also residents of New Jersey. Thereafter, the federal action was dismissed because of the lack of diversity jurisdiction. The plaintiff then filed this identical wrongful death action in State Superior Court.

New Jersey's Wrongful Death Act requires that an action for wrongful death be brought within two years of the date of death. Because the wrongful death complaint in the New Jersey State court was filed more than two years after the date of decedent's death, the issue presented by this appeal is whether the wrongful death statute of limitations may be tolled or deemed satisfied by the timely filing in a federal district court of a complaint that, because of the absence of subject-matter jurisdiction, is later dismissed after the statutory period of limitations.


William Negron suffered injuries after crashing his taxicab into a storefront in New Jersey. He received medical treatment following the accident at defendant, Christ Hospital, which is located in Jersey City, New Jersey. He died on January 24, 1991, from the injuries suffered in the accident. On October 23, 1991, plaintiff Martha Negron, the administratrix ad prosequendum of the estate of William Negron, filed a wrongful death action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Christ Hospital. At the time suit was filed, Martha Negron resided in the state of New York.

On December 18, 1991, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York transferred the action to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. On March 2, 1992, plaintiff amended her complaint to add defendants Dr. Ramon Llarena and Dr. Ligija Rociunas. Defendant Christ Hospital was dismissed.

After the completion of discovery, the case was scheduled for trial on January 23, 1995. On November 28, 1994, the suit was voluntarily dismissed, without prejudice, on the ground that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction.

On February 16, 1995, plaintiff filed this complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Hudson County, Law Division. The complaint alleged the same facts and causes of action that plaintiff had claimed in federal court. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the action had not been filed in New Jersey within the two- year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions. The trial court denied defendants' motion for summary judgment and tolled the statute of limitations.

Defendant Llarena appealed. The Appellate Division, in an unreported decision, reversed that judgment. We granted plaintiff's petition for certification. 147 N.J. 579 (1997).


New Jersey's Wrongful Death Act provides that "[e]very action brought under this chapter shall be commenced within 2 years after the death of the decedent, and not thereafter." N.J.S.A. 2A:31-3. Because this period of limitation was enacted as part of the Wrongful Death Act, it has been regarded as "an indispensable condition" of the right to maintain a wrongful death action. Peters v. Public Serv. Corp., 132 N.J. Eq. 500, 507 (Ch. 1942), aff'd per curiam, 133 N.J. Eq. 283 (E. & A. 1943). It has therefore been characterized as a substantive statute of limitations, Marshall v. Geo. M. Brewster & Son, Inc., 68 N.J. Super. 399, 403 (App. Div. 1961), rev'd. on other grounds, 37 N.J. 176 (1962), not a "statute of limitations in the ordinary or general sense," Eldridge v. Philadelphia & Reading R.R. Co., 83 N.J.L. 463, 465 (E. & A. 1912).

A substantive statute of limitations can be distinguished from an ordinary or "procedural" statute of limitations. White v. Violent Crimes Compensation Bd., 76 N.J. 368, 374 (1978). Procedural statutes of limitations govern general causes of action, such as torts and contracts. See Marian Joyce, Note, Tolling of Substantive Statutes of Limitation -- White v. Violent Crimes Compensation Board, 32 Rutgers L. Rev. 95, 95 (1979). The running of a procedural statute of limitations bars only the remedy, not the right. Ibid. In contrast, substantive statutes of limitations restrict statutory causes of action that did not exist at common law. Ibid. A substantive statute of limitations, as a condition precedent to bringing suit, bars not only the remedy, but also the right itself. 22A Am. Jur. 2d Death at §§ 57, 76 (1988).

Procedural statutes of limitations are not applied strictly. Flexible applications of procedural statutes of limitations may be based on equitable principles, such as the discovery rule, e.g. Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267 (1973), or estoppel, e.g., O'Keeffe v. Snyder, 83 N.J. 478 (1980). In contrast, substantive statutes of limitation are traditionally applied strictly. White, supra, 76 N.J. at 376 (noting that "[w]ith respect to a substantive limitation period, traditional and respectable authority has construed a party's noncompliance with its requirements as an absolute bar to his claim"); accord Kaczmarek v. New Jersey Turnpike Auth., 77 N.J. 329, 339 (1978) ("A limitation contained in a statute creating a new right was generally considered a condition precedent to the existence of the right itself, i.e., if not met by the charging party, that party's complaint would fail.").

Consistent with its interpretation as a substantive statute, the wrongful death statute of limitations has been applied strictly by New Jersey courts. Marshall, supra, 68 N.J. Super. at 403 ("In New Jersey it is settled that our two-year limit is an integral part of the right to sue . . . and that no suit can be maintained unless brought within two years of such a death."); accord Bretthauer v. Jacobson, 79 N.J.L. 223, 225-26 (Sup. Ct. 1910) (ruling that bringing wrongful death action within the then-one-year period was an essential element of cause of action that had to be set forth as part of complaint). As the Chancery Court held in Peters, supra:

The Death Act is a statute of creation and the commencement of the action within the time limit is an indispensable condition of the liability and of the action which it permits. If the action is not instituted within the time limit the defendants are exempt from liability. There being no saving[s] clause in our statute, this court is without power to ingraft any exception to interfere with [the] limit of . . . time within which suit must be brought.

[132 N.J. Eq. at 507.]

The Appellate Division, in this case, determined that "'the two-year limitation in New Jersey's wrongful death act [N.J.S.A. 2A:31-3] is not a "statute of limitations in the ordinary or general sense," but is a condition of the right granted,'" and that "condition must be met before the party has the right to file a wrongful death action."

The interpretation of the meaning and intended application of substantive statutes of limitations has undergone a significant change in recent times. In White, supra, 76 N.J. 368, the Court reexamined the question of whether a substantive statute of limitations could be subject to exceptions from its strict application. The statute of limitations involved in White was that contained in the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 52:4B-1 to -49, which provided compensation to innocent victims of violent crimes who submit an application to the Violent Crime Compensation Board (VCCB) "within 1 year after the date of the personal injury or death." White, supra, 76 N.J. at 371-72, 374. The plaintiff in White had been the victim of a brutal assault and rape. Id. at 370. After repeated diligent attempts to obtain assistance, she applied for relief under the Act; her application to the VCCB, however, was filed seven weeks after the limitations period had expired. Id. at 370-72. The Court held "that in the case of a statutorily created right, a 'substantive' limitation period may appropriately be tolled in a particular set of circumstances if the legislative purpose underlying the statutory scheme will thereby be effectuated." Id. at 379.

The Court also emphasized the relevance of considerations of public policy and legislative intent in determining whether the substantive statute of limitations could be relaxed. The Court considered the critical question to be whether relaxation of the statute of limitations would comport with the legislative intent. Id. at 377. Accordingly, the Court found no policy underlying the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act that would prohibit tolling the statute of limitations for a victim's crime-induced incapacity; further, even though the period of limitations was created as part of the statutory right, there was no apparent legislative intent to cut off all claims after a specified time from the commission of the crime, regardless of the equities involved. Id. at 385-86.

White's significant change in the interpretive approach to substantive statutes of limitation clearly is relevant to the wrongful death statute of limitations. In Marshall, supra, 37 N.J. 176, the Court was confronted with a conflict-of-laws question, namely, whether Pennsylvania's or New Jersey's wrongful death statute of limitations should be applied in a wrongful death action brought in New Jersey arising out of a Pennsylvania accident. Id. at 179. On accepted conflict-of-laws principles the Court determined to apply New Jersey's statute, finding that the Pennsylvania statute of limitations was a procedural and not a substantive statute. Id. at 186-88. Implicit in the Court's analysis in Marshall was that the New Jersey wrongful death statute of limitations, as a substantive statute of limitations, constituted a condition of the cause of action and consequently was not amenable to any interpretation that could alter its strict application. Id. at 182-83.

That assumption, however, was implicitly abandoned in the recent case Gantes v. Kason Corp., 145 N.J. 478 (1996). There, a products- liability action was brought in New Jersey by the representative of a Georgia decedent who had been killed while at work in Georgia, allegedly because of a defective machine that had been manufactured in New Jersey. Id. at 482-83. In considering a choice-of-law issue similar to that posed in Marshall, the Court determined that the Georgia statute of repose applicable in products-liability actions was similar to a substantive statute of limitations. Id. at 495. The Court also acknowledged that as a substantive part of the statute defining the cause of action, the statute of repose would ordinarily be applied as a constituent part of the substantive law of the place of the accident. Ibid. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that the statute should be construed to ascertain its underlying legislative purpose and intent in order to determine whether, in light of Georgia's public policy, it should be applied as a condition of the cause of action to bar the New Jersey products-liability action. Ibid. Following that interpretive standard, which focused on legislative purpose and intent, the Court concluded that application of the Georgia statute of repose to the New Jersey action based on the Georgia accident would not fulfill any of its underlying legislative purposes and, therefore, the statute of repose ought not apply as a condition of the underlying action, but that New Jersey's wrongful death statute of limitations should apply. Id. at 497-98.

Thus, this Court's approach to substantive statutes of limitations has evolved to one that recognizes that their application depends on statutory interpretation focusing on legislative intent and purpose. See Kaczmarek, supra, 77 N.J. at 339 (noting that in White, the Court eschewed its previous strict or "mechanistic" approach to substantive statutes of limitations "for a more flexible legislative-purpose test"). The Court in White explicitly adopted such an approach, following the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Burnett v. New York Central Railroad, 380 U.S. 424, 85 S. Ct. 1050, 13 L. Ed. 2d 941 (1965), and the Fourth Circuit in Scarborough v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, 178 F.2d 253 (1949), cert. denied, 339 U.S. 919, 70 S. Ct. 621, 94 L. Ed. 1343 (1950). White, supra, 76 N.J. at 376-77. Those courts looked beyond the form of the limitations period, that is, whether it was "substantive" or "procedural," to determine whether tolling of the limitations period would effectuate the legislative purpose of the statute. Ibid.


Looking to the Wrongful Death Act, "there is nothing reflective in the objectives of [the Act] or its history that suggests the Legislature intended to foreclose the familiar doctrine of substantial compliance in the [statute of limitations] context." Cornblatt v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218, 240 (1998). The doctrine of substantial compliance allows for the flexible application of a statute in appropriate circumstances. In the circumstances of this case where an action, though later dismissed, was filed within the time prescribed by the statute of limitations, we can turn initially to that doctrine to ...

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