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Greczyn v. Colgate-Palmolive

March 21, 2005

WENDY GRECZYN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT, AND STEVEN FISHMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COLGATE-PALMOLIVE, DEFENDANT, AND KLING LINDQUIST, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND JOHN DOES (1-20) AND ABC CORPS. (1-20), DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 367 N.J. Super. 385 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

In this appeal, the Court addresses the interplay of the statute of repose protecting designers and builders, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1, and the rule governing New Jersey's fictitious-party practice. R. 4:26-4.

On March 11, 1999, Wendy Greczyn, plaintiff, tripped and fell on a staircase in the Colgate-Palmolive office center in Piscataway, New Jersey. On October 3, 2000, Greczyn filed suit against the building owner and several fictitious defendants, identified as the designers and builders of the staircase. During discovery, Greczyn learned that Kling Lindquist was the designer involved in the renovation and construction of that staircase and that Kling Lindquist had substantially completed its work in November 1990, nearly ten years prior to Greczyn's initial complaint. In October 2001, a trial judge granted Greczyn's motion to amend her complaint, substituting Kling Lindquist for a fictitious defendant. Greczyn filed an amended complaint in December 2001, explicitly naming Kling Lindquist in the suit for the first time.

In March 2003, a different trial judge granted Kling Lindquist's motion for summary judgment based on the ten-year statute of repose found in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1. The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that a statute of repose does not permit "relation back" under fictitious-party practice and that because a statute of repose is substantive, it cannot be tolled under equitable principles.

The Supreme Court granted plaintiff's petition for certification.

HELD

When plaintiff's injury and the filing of a lawsuit occur within the period of repose, utilization of our fictitious-party practice allows a previously unknown, although functionally identified, designer or builder to be named after the expiration of the period of repose, so long as plaintiff has acted diligently.

1. Through its statute of repose, New Jersey provides protection from liability for architects and builders after a specific time period. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1. The discovery rule provides that the statute of limitations does not start to run until a victim discovers or should have discovered that a wrong has been inflicted. The "completed and accepted rule" provided that an architect's or a builder's liability for negligent design or construction of a structure "terminated upon the completion of the professional's work and its acceptance by the property owner." E.A. Williams, 82 N.J. 160, 165-166 (1980). We repudiated the "completed and accepted rule" outright in Totten v. Gruzen, 52 N.J. 202 (1968), a year after the enactment of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1. (Pp. 4-7)

2. The purpose of the fictitious-party practice rule, R. 4:26-4, is to render timely the complaint filed by a diligent plaintiff, who is aware of a cause of action against an identified defendant but does not know the defendant's name. A specific claim must be filed against a described, though unnamed party, within the statute of limitations and plaintiff must diligently seek to identify the fictitiously-named defendant. Despite not being called by name, Greczyn's complaint fully identified "persons" by function: those John Does who "designed a certain interior staircase" at the Colgate-Palmolive office complex in Piscataway. In other words, though claiming against as yet "unnamable" persons, Greczyn's action was brought against "persons" nonetheless. (Pp. 8-10)

3. Kling Lindquist suggests that our prior jurisprudence is dispositive of the correctness of the Appellate Division's holding that Greczyn's suit is barred. We disagree. In Rosenberg, the complaint was filed thirty-three years after the "improvement" and in Stix, Hudson County and O'Connor, sixteen, fifteen and eleven years later, respectively.

The statute of repose, by its very terms - "no action...shall be brought...more than ten years after...construction" - bars those claims. In contrast to them, Greczyn both was injured and filed an action within the ten-year period of repose. (The Court then discusses out-of-state cases at Pp. 14-18) (Pp. 10-18)

4. We are satisfied that allowing the use of fictitious-party practice in these circumstances is sound. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1 does not specifically preclude importation of fictitious-party practice, thus rendering it open to interpretation on that issue, and the facts presented are exactly what fictitious-party practice was developed for. The Legislature intended to limit the time within which a cause of action may arise against an architect or builder to ten years from the date construction is substantially completed. Thus, injuries sustained or suits filed after the ten-year period are barred. Greczyn's injury arose, and the complaint was filed, within the prescribed ten-year window under the fictitious-party practice rule. Allowing fictitious-party practice in this context will not subject an architect or a builder to liability for life or even to indefinite vulnerability for a structural defect: A plaintiff who is injured or who files suit after ten years is simply out of time, and a plaintiff who is injured and files within ten years but is dilatory in seeking the fictitious party's name is likewise barred. Where the elements of timely filing and diligence are satisfied, the potential exposure of a builder or designer is finite and circumscribed, thus meeting the legislative intent underlying N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1. (Pp. 18-20)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, and in particular for disposition of the question of Greczyn's diligence.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued January 3, 2005

On this appeal, we address the interplay of the statute of repose protecting designers and builders, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1, and the rule governing our fictitious-party practice. R. 4:26-4. The case arose when plaintiff was injured on a staircase in a building approximately nine years after its completion. One month prior to the expiration of the ten-year statute of repose, plaintiff filed suit against the building's owner and several fictitious defendants, identified as the designers and builders of the staircase. A year after the expiration of the ten-year period, plaintiff amended her complaint, substituting the name of the designer of the staircase for one of the fictitious defendants. The designer moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted and the Appellate Division affirmed. We granted plaintiff's petition for certification and now reverse.

We hold that, when plaintiff's injury and the filing of her lawsuit occur within the period of repose, utilization of our fictitious-party practice allows a previously unknown, although functionally identified, designer or builder to be named after the expiration of the period of repose, so long as plaintiff has acted diligently.

I.

The essential facts in the case are not in dispute. Plaintiff, Wendy Greczyn tripped and fell on a staircase in the Colgate-Palmolive office center in Piscataway on March 11, 1999. On October 3, 2000, Greczyn filed suit to recover damages for personal injuries allegedly arising from that fall.*fn1 She joined her employer, Colgate-Palmolive, solely for the purposes of discovery and named as additional defendants John Does, one through twenty, and ABC Corps., one through twenty. Greczyn described fictitious defendants eleven through fifteen as the designers of the staircase on which she fell, and then, during discovery, learned that Kling Lindquist was the designer involved in the renovation and construction of that staircase. Kling Lindquist substantially completed its work on the staircase in November 1990, nearly ten years prior to Greczyn's initial complaint.*fn2 In October 2001, a trial judge granted Greczyn's motion to amend her complaint, substituting Kling Lindquist for a fictitious defendant. Greczyn filed an amended complaint in December 2001, explicitly naming Kling Lindquist in the suit for the first time.

In March 2003, a different trial judge granted Kling Lindquist's motion for summary judgment based on the ten-year statute of ...


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