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Rudderow v. Sullivan

June 10, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-2149-04.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 19, 2008

Before Judges Lintner and Sabatino.

Plaintiff Brian Rudderow, pro se, appeals from the Law Division's order of December 22, 2005. The order dismissed plaintiff's negligence claims against defendant Andrew Sullivan, based upon the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations. Because the dismissal order comports with the applicable law, we affirm.

Plaintiff was a tenant in a house in Vineland owned by defendant. While he was residing there, plaintiff unsuccessfully attempted to open a window that defendant had painted shut. His right hand broke through the window pane, severing a tendon. Plaintiff had the tendon surgically reattached, and he obtained other related medical care. Plaintiff contends that his injuries from the accident are permanent.

The accident occurred on or about February 21, 2002. Plaintiff's three-count complaint was not filed in the Law Division until December 27, 2004, approximately two years and ten months after the accident. The first two counts of the complaint alleged that defendant was negligent. The third count asserted breach of contract, alleging that defendant orally promised to pay for plaintiff's injuries. As proof of that alleged promise, the complaint noted that defendant reimbursed plaintiff for his out-of-pocket medical expenses until March 2004, when defendant ceased making such reimbursements.

Defendant moved for summary judgment on the negligence counts of the complaint, invoking the two-year statute of limitations set forth at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a). The statute provides, in pertinent part, that:

Every action at law for an injury to the person caused by the wrongful act, neglect or default of any person within this State shall be commenced within two years next after the cause of any such action shall have accrued[.]

Plaintiff opposed the motion. He contended that his failure to file suit within the statutory two-year period should be excused because of defendant's alleged promise to compensate him, which defendant did not breach until early 2004. Plaintiff also submitted a certification from his mother, who corroborated various reimbursements that defendant had made.

Upon considering this chronology, the motion judge enforced the limitations statute and dismissed plaintiff's negligence claims as untimely. In his bench ruling of December 22, 2005, the judge determined that defendant's temporary reimbursement of plaintiff's medical bills did not justify plaintiff's delay in filing a timely negligence action. The judge noted that the last reimbursement from defendant, as documented in plaintiff's responsive motion papers, occurred in April 2003, which was ten months before the statute ran and twenty months before he ultimately filed suit. The judge ruled that plaintiff had ample time to comply with the statute.

Subsequently, plaintiff's contract claim was evaluated by a mandatory civil arbitration panel, pursuant to Rule 4:21A-1. The arbitrators found that the contract claim lacked merit. Plaintiff failed to file a timely request to set aside the panel's ruling and demand a de novo trial, so the arbitration result became final. R. 4:21A-6. Consequently, the court entered a final judgment on June 23, 2006, dismissing the third count of the complaint.*fn1

On appeal, plaintiff seeks to reverse the trial court's dismissal of his negligence claims. He variously argues that his failure to file a timely action is exonerated by federal disability laws, based on his claim that he has substance abuse problems that impaired his ability to safeguard his legal rights. He further contends that the two-year limitations period should have been equitably tolled; strict adherence to the statutory deadline imposes an undue hardship; he was incompetent and unable to address his legal affairs in a timely manner; the dismissal of his case is contrary to legislative purposes; and the court should rectify his oversight in the interests of justice.

Statutes of limitations serve at least three important policy interests. The first is to instill in society a "'measure of repose.'" Caravaggio v. D'Agostini, 166 N.J. 237, 245 (2001) (quoting Farrell v. Votator Div. of Chemetron Corp., 62 N.J. 111, 115 (1973)). The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized this as the primary benefit of statutes of limitations, finding that "eventual repose creates desirable security and stability in human affairs." Galligan v. Westfield Centre Serv., Inc., 82 N.J. 188, 191-92 (1980). Second, the statutes encourage the prompt settlement of disputes, so that potential litigants do not sit on their rights. "By penalizing unreasonable delay, such statutes induce litigants to pursue their claims diligently so that answering parties will have a fair opportunity to defend." Id. at 192; see also Troum v. Newark Beth Israel Med. Ctr., 338 N.J. Super. 1, 22 (App. Div.), ...

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