On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 311 N.J. Super. 408 (1998).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.
The issue in this wrongful death-medical malpractice case is whether a doctor being sued for causing the death of an adopted infant has standing to challenge the posthumous finalization of the infant's adoption. The Chancery Division, Family Part, concluded that there is no standing. A divided panel of the Appellate Division held that under the factual matrix of this case there is standing. 311 N.J. Super. 408, 411 (1998). This appeal is before us as of right based upon a Dissent in the Appellate Division. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We now reverse, holding that a defendant in a wrongful death-medical malpractice action lacks standing to collaterally attack the posthumous adoption of the victim of the alleged malpractice.
Baby T was born on December 1, 1993. Prior to the infant's birth, his natural mother selected P.H. and J.H., husband and wife, to be the adoptive parents of her unborn child. The natural mother executed a valid surrender of her parental rights to Adoptions From the Heart, a State-approved and licensed adoption agency. On December 4, 1993, P.H. and J.H., through the adoption agency, took physical custody of Baby T with the intent to adopt the child. The agency visited their home on three occasions after the child had been placed with the prospective adoptive parents and found they were providing a loving and caring home.
On March 31, 1994, the infant was admitted to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for same-day surgery to repair an inguinal hernia. During the administration of anesthesia by defendant Dr. Nishat Zedie, the baby became "rigid" and suffered cardiac arrest. Although initially stabilized and transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit, the infant deteriorated and died later that day. A medical consultant retained by the prospective adoptive parents informed them that Baby T died because Dr. Zedie administered succinylchlorine, an anesthetic expressly classified by the Food and Drug Administration as contraindicated for use in children.
P.H. and J.H., with the consent of the adoption agency, accepted responsibility for all funeral arrangements and expenses for Baby T. They made those arrangements as the parents of the child and buried him in their family plot under the name they had given the child. In other words, they treated the child as if he were their natural-born son.
At the time of Baby T's death on March 31, 1994, the prospective adoptive parents had not filed a complaint for adoption because the child had resided in their home for only four months rather than the six months required by N.J.S.A. 9:3-47a. Consequently, the adoption agency requested permission from the Bureau of Adoption Agency Licensing of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services ("Bureau") to consent to the finalization of Baby T's adoption. On November 4, 1994, the Bureau waived the six-month requirement of N.J.S.A. 9:3-47a. By that time, the statute had been amended to remove the six-month requirement for filing a complaint. L. 1993, c. 345, § 10, effective April 27, 1994. In granting permission to proceed with the adoption, the Bureau stated that "in consideration of the circumstances involved with this case and the family's desire to [finalize] the adoption, the Bureau of Licensing will not cite as a violation the agency's consent to the adoption of the child with four months of supervision." The adoption agency granted its consent to the adoption of Baby T by P.H. and J.H. on February 1, 1995.
The prospective adoptive parents apparently filed their complaint for adoption in early 1995. On July 7, 1995, the Family Part, with full knowledge of the death of Baby T, entered a final judgment of adoption of Baby T by P.H. and J.H. They adopted a second child at the same time.
The wrongful death, survivorship, and medical malpractice complaint was filed on March 8, 1995, by P.H., individually and as the administrator of Baby T's estate, against Dr. Zedie and several other defendants.
On July 17, 1997, more than two years after the adoption had been finalized, Dr. Zedie filed a motion in the Family Part to vacate the final judgment of adoption of Baby T pursuant to Rule 4:50-1(d). Dr. Zedie argued, based on that rule, that the judgment of adoption was void because it was not permitted by statute and that she had standing to vacate the adoption. The trial court in a published opinion denied the motion based upon the Adoption Act, N.J.S.A. 9:3-37 to -56, and the court's equitable and parens patriae powers. 308 N.J. Super. 344, 354 (Ch. Div. 1997). The trial court also found the judgment of adoption was not void, a requirement for relief under Rule 4:50-1(d). Id. at 363.
The trial court concluded that Dr. Zedie had no standing under Rule 4:50-1 because she was neither a party to the adoption, nor a legal representative of a party to the adoption. Id. at 349. It concluded that Dr. Zedie had not suffered any direct harm as a result of the adoption and sought to vacate the adoption only in an attempt to find sanctuary from the potential liability attendant to the wrongful death and survivorship actions commenced against her. Ibid.
Notwithstanding the trial court's finding that Dr. Zedie lacked standing, it nonetheless addressed the substantive issue concerning the validity of the posthumous adoption. Ibid. Relying on In re Adoption of Children by O., 141 N.J. Super. 586, 589 (Ch. Div. 1976), the trial court concluded that "[a]n adoption judgment should not be set aside unless it is in the best interests of the child, and the adoptive parents." In re Adoption of Baby T., supra, 308 N.J. Super. at 355. The trial court further noted that a motion to vacate a final judgment of adoption should be granted only under the most unusual facts and circumstances. Ibid. The court analogized the facts in the present case with those in Stellmah v. Hunterdon Cooperative G.L.F. Serv., Inc., 47 N.J. 163 (1966), in which this Court upheld the adoption of a child where the final judgment of adoption was entered subsequent to the death of the adopting parent in order to render the child eligible to receive worker's compensation benefits. In re Adoption of Baby T., supra, 308 N.J. Super. at 356. The trial court reasoned that it "would be contrary to the spirit and intent of the Adoption Act" to vacate the adoption where "the completion of the six-month placement period was thwarted by the alleged malpractice of the very person who seeks to vacate the adoption." Id. at 357. The court rejected Dr. Zedie's assertion that the doctrine of equitable adoption was not recognized in New Jersey. Id. at 358-59 (citing D'Accardi v. Chater, 96 F.3d 97 (4th Cir. 1996)). In addition, Dr. Zedie's reliance on In re Adoption of Bradfield, 642 P.2d 214 (N.M. Ct. App. 1982), was found unpersuasive. The trial court viewed the New Mexico Court of Appeals' decision to uphold the vacation of a posthumous adoption as a rigid, unequitable and unenlightened adherence "to an immutable rule" requiring that all parties to an adoption be alive at the time the final judgment is entered. In re Adoption of Baby T., supra, 308 N.J. Super. at 361-62.
A divided panel of the Appellate Division reversed. In re Adoption of Baby T., supra, 311 N.J. Super. at 416. The majority concluded that Dr. Zedie had standing to question the validity of the adoption judgment. Id. at 411. Relying on New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce v. New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, 82 N.J. 57, 68 (1980), the majority concluded that Dr. Zedie "[a]s a defendant in the malpractice action . . . has a stake in the validity of the adoption judgment and her interest establishes a `genuine adverseness' between her and the adoptive parents." In re Adoption of Baby T., supra, 311 N.J. Super. at 412 (internal citations omitted).
The majority concluded that neither case law nor the doctrine of equitable adoption authorizes posthumous adoption in New Jersey. Id. at 413-14. The panel stated that the trial court had "overread" the Stellmah decision, noting that the adoption approved in that case was valid only because the child had acquired the status of an adopted child under the laws of Quebec and not under the laws of New Jersey. Id. at 413.
Alternatively, the Appellate Division held that the doctrine of equitable adoption was applicable only "to support a claim for benefits which would be available if a legally recognized parent-child relationship existed." Id. at 416. The majority was of the view that "[w]hether the equitable adoption concept is applicable must be decided in the context of a specific claim," and as such "Baby T's administrator's contention that principles of equitable adoption apply to sustain the action ...