On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, BER-L-43-99.
Before Judges Kestin, Ciancia*fn1 and Alley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alley, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
In this appeal we again interpret and apply the Affidavit of Merit Statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27. In this medical malpractice action, the appeal involves both an affidavit of merit which was untimely served, and interrogatory answers certified by the injured plaintiff which described the expert's opinion and which were served within the statutory 120 day period. The motion court dismissed the action for failure to comply with the Affidavit of Merit Statute and we affirm.
On January 5, 1999, a complaint alleging medical malpractice was filed in the Law Division on behalf of Doris Kritzberg and her husband Dr. Nathan Kritzberg. It was served on March 19, 1999. The alleged negligence occurred during Mrs. Kritzberg's treatment by defendant for foot and ankle problems, extending from December 12, 1995 through January 24, 1997, and including surgery on October 30, 1996.
On May 4, 1999, after the time for an answer had already expired, defendant's counsel requested and received an extension of that time. Defendant's answer was served on June 3, 1999, together with supplemental interrogatories. The answer specifically demanded that plaintiffs furnish an affidavit of merit. Shortly thereafter, defendant provided answers to certain interrogatories.
The relevant section of the Affidavit of Merit Statute provides:
In any action for damages for personal injuries, wrongful death or property damage resulting from an alleged act of malpractice or negligence by a licensed person in his profession or occupation, the plaintiff shall, within 60 days following the date of filing of the answer to the complaint by the defendant, provide each defendant with an affidavit of an appropriate licensed person that there exists a reasonable probability that the care, skill or knowledge exercised or exhibited in the treatment, practice or work that is the subject of the complaint, fell outside acceptable professional or occupational standards or treatment practices. The court may grant no more than one additional period, not to exceed 60 days, to file the affidavit pursuant to this section, upon a finding of good cause. The person executing the affidavit shall be licensed in this or any other state; have particular expertise in the general area or specialty involved in the action, as evidenced by board certification or by devotion of the person's practice substantially to the general area or specialty involved in the action for a period of at least five years. The person shall have no financial interest in the outcome of the case under review, but this prohibition shall not exclude the person from being an expert witness in the case. [N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27.] (Emphasis added)
Taking June 3, the date of the answer, as the starting point, the statutory initial 60 day period for providing an affidavit of merit expired on August 2, and the additional 60 days available subject to leave of court expired October 1, 1999.
While the hands on the affidavit of merit clock were moving toward midnight, discovery proceeded. Defendant's counsel agreed to two extensions of time for plaintiffs to answer interroga- tories, including interrogatories as to expert witnesses, and, with time extended to September 2, 1999, plaintiffs served interrogatory answers on the very last day. They were certified by plaintiff Doris Kritzberg. The answers to Questions 7 and 9 set forth names of treating physicians expected to testify and stated that a Dr. Barry Gustin was expected to testify regarding injuries resulting from a deviation from the standard of care.
On November 16, 1999, plaintiffs were deposed, and on November 19, Mrs. Kritzberg submitted to a physical examination by defendant's medical expert. On the same day as the medical examination, November 19, 1999, seven weeks after the 120 day deadline for service of an affidavit of merit had expired, defendant moved to dismiss for failure to serve the affidavit.
On January 11, 2000, plaintiffs finally submitted an affidavit of merit prepared by Dr. Barry Gustin, which was sworn to the same day, and on January 12, 2000, plaintiffs responded to the motion to dismiss with a cross-motion seeking in the alternative an order to extend the time to serve the Affidavit, deem the interrogatory answers to constitute substantial compliance with the affidavit requirement, or relate the service of the affidavit back nunc pro tunc to the date of the interrogatory answers.
On February 4, 2000, Judge James T. Murphy denied plaintiffs' cross motion and granted defendant's motion to dismiss. ...