On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, docket no. L-2813-01.
Before Judges Conley, Braithwaite and Lisa.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conley, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 29, 2004
This appeal raises the issue of whether the amendment in 2000 to the Wrongful Death Act, which eliminated the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims arising from a murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter, applies retroactively to allow plaintiff to litigate her claim against defendant, her father, for the murder of her mother. Plaintiff's wrongful death lawsuit was brought twenty years after her mother's death. Defendant moved to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds. After the motion was denied, a directed verdict on liability was entered and the matter proceeded before a jury on the issue of damages. The jury ultimately awarded plaintiff $542,000 in damages. With prejudgment interest, a final judgment for $596,415.71 was entered on October 2, 2003. We affirm.
The pertinent facts are as follows. On June 22, 1981, defendant's wife, Candice Austin Short, was found murdered in her motor vehicle in a parking lot in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey. State v. Short, 131 N.J. 47, 50 (1993). Decedent and defendant had one child, plaintiff Jessica Leigh Short, who was born on March 6, 1979.
Defendant was, eventually, indicted and charged with the murder of his wife in February 1988. He was convicted by a jury in early 1989 and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment with a fifteen year disqualifier. On appeal, the conviction was reversed. Id. at 63. Defendant was retried in October 1994.
He was again convicted and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment with a fifteen-year disqualifier. His conviction was affirmed on appeal in an unreported decision and his petition for certification was denied. State v. Short, 143 N.J. 325 (1996). Defendant is currently incarcerated at Riverfront State Prison.
Prior to the amendment to the Wrongful Death Act, plaintiff, a minor at the time of her mother's death, had, at the most, until March 6, 1999, to file the action. See LaFage v. Jani, 166 N.J. 412, 430-31 (2001). She did not do so. In August 1999, defendant's mother executed a will with defendant as her sole beneficiary. She did not change her will after the 2000 amendment removing the time-bar.
Defendant's mother died in March 2001. Her estate includes two real estate properties in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Five months after her grandmother's death, plaintiff filed suit and simultaneously filed a complaint for a prejudgment writ of attachment to all proceeds of the estate, including the two properties. An order was thereafter entered attaching the estate's assets, against which, save the issue of retroactivity, plaintiff may now execute her judgment.
When plaintiff's cause of action arose upon the murder of her mother, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-3 provided that"[e]very action brought under this chapter shall be commenced within 2 years after the death of decedent, and not thereafter." As amended, the Act now provides:
Every action brought under this chapter shall be commenced within two years after the death of the decedent, and not thereafter, provided, however, that if the death resulted from murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter for which the defendant has been convicted, found not guilty by reason of insanity or adjudicated delinquent, the action may be brought at any time.
[N.J.S.A. 2A:31-3 (emphasis added).]
The Legislature's rationale for this amendment and the desire to give it full retroactive effect, is clearly expressed in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, ...