June 10, 2008
BRIAN RUDDEROW, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
ANDREW SULLIVAN, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-2149-04.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
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.), certif. denied, 168 N.J. 295 (2001). Third, statutes of limitations help assure that judges and juries do not have to adjudicate "stale claims." Mitzner v. W. Ridgelawn Cemetery, Inc., 311 N.J. Super. 233, 236 (App. Div. 1998).
To carry out these legislative aims, courts enforce limitations statutes in a strict manner. The two-year deadline under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) has even been enforced in a situation where the plaintiff filed suit only one day late. See Leake v. Bullock, 104 N.J. Super. 309, 311-12 (App. Div. 1969). The statutes may be equitably tolled only in rare situations, such as where a plaintiff lacked sufficient information to have reason to know that he or she had a basis for a claim, see Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267, 274 (1973), or where a defendant is outside the jurisdiction of the New Jersey courts, or cannot be located with reasonable diligence, see Crespo v. Stapf, 128 N.J. 351, 363 (1992).
The motion judge's assessment that the limitations statute must be enforced here is amply supported by the record. As the judge noted, the motion papers showed that defendant ceased reimbursing plaintiff's medical bills in April 2003, about ten months before the two-year statute ran. Plaintiff still had ample time to file suit, even if defendant's cooperation up until that point had somehow lulled him into forbearance. The record further shows that plaintiff's parents consulted with an attorney about his accident before the limitations period ran.*fn2
Plaintiff argues for the first time on appeal that his failure to comply with the two-year bar of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a) must be excused under the federal disability laws and because he was allegedly incompetent to manage his affairs, due to the effects of substance abuse. Because plaintiff failed to raise these arguments below, we need not decide them on appeal. Nieder v. Royal Indemn. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973); Monek v. Borough of S. River, 354 N.J. Super. 442, 456 (App. Div. 2002). Even if we were to reach these procedurally-improper assertions, they have not been proven to have merit.
Plaintiff has presented in his appendix, without a proper application to expand the record, see Rule 2:5-5, a September 13, 2004 letter from a psychiatrist, Eileen M. O'Connor, M.D. Dr. O'Connor states in that letter that plaintiff has a long history of severe alcohol and polysubstance abuse and has shown features suggestive of ADHD.*fn3 The doctor adds in the final paragraph of the letter that "[a] question has arisen as to the possibility that [plaintiff's] understanding of circumstances and judgment could have been influenced by his substance abuse, and yes, this is a possibility."
The doctor's uncertified statement does not rise to a finding with a reasonable degree of medical probability. In addition, the doctor's vague allusion to the "circumstances" and to plaintiff's "judgment" does not make it clear whether she is referring to his forcible effort to open the painted-shut window in February 2002 or to his post-accident mental status over the next two years. The letter, even if it were properly before us, is simply inadequate to exempt plaintiff from the unambiguous mandate of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a). We further note that nothing in the record reflects that plaintiff was ever adjudicated incompetent by a court. See R. 4:86-1 to -8 (governing actions for guardianship of a mentally incapacitated person).
Although we appreciate that plaintiff's unfortunate hand injury has been painful and that his untimely attempt to pursue compensation has been disappointing, we are satisfied that the motion judge correctly followed the law in enforcing the statute of limitations.