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Quail v. Shop-Rite Supermarkets, Inc.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

June 4, 2018

WILLIAM QUAIL, as Administrator of the ESTATE OF MARY K. QUAIL and WILLIAM QUAIL, Individually, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SHOP-RITE SUPERMARKETS, INC., SHOP-RITE OF STANHOPE, NEW JERSEY, SHOP-RITE OF BYRAM TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY, and RONETCO d/b/a SHOPRITE OF BYRAM, N.J. #203, Defendants-Respondents.

          Argued April 9, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0606-14.

          Michael S. Bubb argued the cause for appellant (Bubb, Grogan & Cocca, LLP, attorneys; Michael S. Bubb, of counsel and on the briefs; Anthony Cocca, on the brief).

          Mark D. Marino argued the cause for respondents (Harwood Lloyd, LLC, attorneys; Stephen Wellinghorst and Mark D. Marino, on the briefs).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Ostrer and Rose.

          OPINION

          SABATINO, P.J.A.D.

         Plaintiff in this wrongful death and survival action appeals from the trial court's rulings to: (1) exclude from evidence at trial a Certificate of Death issued following an examination by the county deputy medical examiner; (2) deny plaintiff a reopening and extension of discovery to allow the use of the medical examiner's associated report; and (3) grant summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claims.

         On the date of the accident, decedent and plaintiff were shopping at defendant's supermarket. Decedent was using a motorized cart. As she went down a narrow aisle, her cart's basket caught on a cash register station, causing the station to fall on her. The accident injured her leg. Decedent stated she was fine and went home, but four days later she was taken to the hospital with complications. She died the following morning.

         After a deputy medical examiner inspected decedent's body, a Certificate of Death was issued. The Certificate stated that the manner of her death was an "accident" and that the cause of death was "complications of blunt trauma of [the] right lower extremity." The examiner's associated report reiterated these conclusions in more detail.

         The key legal issue in this appeal is whether the State Medical Examiner Act, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-92, mandates the admission before a civil jury of the Certificate of Death and the hearsay opinions it contained. In addition, we consider whether the hearsay exception for vital statistics, N.J.R.E. 803(c)(9), supplies a sufficient pathway for the Certificate's admissibility. As part of that analysis, we consider whether the "net opinion" doctrine, N.J.R.E. 808 (disallowing the admission of certain disputed complex opinions embedded in otherwise-admissible hearsay records), and case law require the exclusion of the examiner's hearsay opinions. The panel also considers whether the trial court misapplied its discretion in declining to reopen and extend discovery under the circumstances, and whether the court erred in granting summary judgment.

         For the reasons that follow, we hold that N.J.S.A. 52:17B-92 does not provide an absolute right to a civil plaintiff to admit the full contents of the Certificate of Death. The hearsay opinions within the Certificate were properly excluded by the trial court under N.J.R.E. 808, the net opinion doctrine, and pertinent case law. We also hold the hearsay exception for vital statistics does not require admission of the examiner's opinions.

         Additionally, we conclude the trial court reasonably exercised its discretion in declining to reopen and extend discovery after declaring the Certificate inadmissible. Nor did the court err in granting defendant summary judgment, in light of plaintiff's lack of necessary expert proof of medical causation.

         I.

         On October 19, 2012, plaintiff William Quail and his wife, decedent Mary Quail ("Mary"), [1] were shopping in Stanhope at the "Shop-Rite of Byram" supermarket. Mary used a motorized shopping cart, but had difficulty maneuvering through the checkout aisle. When the cart's grocery basket caught the edge of a register station, the register station collapsed and fell on Mary's right leg. A cashier asked if Mary was alright or needed help, and Mary responded at the time that she was fine but a little shaken. The cashier called the store manager, who also asked Mary about her condition. According to the manager's written statement, Mary stated at the time that she was fine and not hurt at all.

         When Mary returned home, her leg began to swell, but she did not seek immediate medical attention. Four days later, on October 23, Mary was taken to St. Clare's Hospital. She presented with a large hematoma on her right leg. Mary's condition deteriorated rapidly. She was pronounced dead at the hospital at 5:51 a.m. on October 24, 2012.

         Generally, when a person dies within twenty-four hours after admission into a hospital, the Morris County Medical Examiner is notified to inspect the body. Accordingly, on October 24, Dr. Carlos A. Fonseca, a forensic pathologist and deputy county medical examiner, externally inspected decedent's refrigerated body and prepared a report. The following day, a Certificate of Death was issued. It stated decedent's manner of death was an "accident, " and that the cause of death was "complications of blunt trauma of [the] right lower extremity." The Certificate was issued by the Local Registrar, and bears the sealed signature of the Acting State Registrar of the New Jersey Office of Vital Statistics and Registry.

         Dr. Fonseca's associated three-page report amplified the findings noted on the Certificate of Death. The report described decedent as "a morbidly obese, well developed, elderly white female who appears to be the stated age of 68 years." The report included observations about the decedent's condition as to various parts of her body. One of Dr. Fonseca's observations in the report was that:

The right lower extremity reveals mild pitting edema from the knee level down. The right leg reveals extensive swelling of the anterolateral surface due to a 9" x 7" hematoma. Associated with this is purplish/bluish bruising of the back of the leg extending into the popliteal fossa that reveals thickening of the skin. The skin overlying the hematoma is tense and with fluctuation on compression. A large area of epidermolysis measuring 7" x 4" is noted at this level with superficial ulceration of the skin with partial splitting of the dermis and oozing of clear to hemorrhagic fluid. Patchy areas of skin slippage are noted around the margins of the hematoma.

[(Emphasis added).]

         Near the end of the report, Dr. Fonseca opined:

Based on the investigation, medical history, medical records, and external examination, it is my opinion that the deceased died as a consequence of complications of blunt trauma of right lower extremity having as contributory conditions anticoagulation therapy for atrial fibrillation, diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure. Manner of death is accidental.

[(Emphasis added).]

         Thereafter, plaintiff, as administrator of his late wife's estate and individually, filed a civil action in the Law Division against Shop-Rite[2] and fictitious defendants. He asserts claims under the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6, and under the Survivor Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-3. Both claims rest upon a theory that decedent's accident was caused by the supermarket's negligence, allegedly causing her leg injury and ultimate death.

         Shop-Rite contests liability and resultant damages. With respect to the issues on appeal, its main argument is that plaintiff, who did not retain a medical expert, failed to present sufficient evidence to establish medical causation. Plaintiff counters that such causation is substantiated by the Certificate ...


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