Avoiding an Absurd Result in a Statute of Limitations Case Under the Survivor Act

Warren v. Muenzen, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2016).  A 2009 amendment to the Survivor Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-3, included language that “[e]very action brought under this chapter shall be commenced within two years of the death of the decedent, and not thereafter,”  Plaintiff in this case, who alleged that medical negligence resulted in her husband’s death from cancer, filed suit on January 18, 2013, within two years after her husband’s September 27, 2011 death.  But her husband had been told of his cancer diagnosis in September 2009, so a ruling that plaintiff’s Survivor Act claims were timely would have effectively extended the two-year personal injury statute of limitations period of N.J.S.A. 2A;14-2(a) to more than three years.

The defense moved for summary judgment on limitations grounds.  The Law Division granted that motion on only one of plaintiff’s three Survivor Act counts.  What was the Appellate Division, which took this case on leave to appeal, to do?

Writing for the panel, Judge Messano conducted a detailed analysis of the Survivor Act and compared and contrasted that law’s language regarding limitations with that of the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A;31-1 to -6 (“WDA”).  The WDA is another statute that permits suits resulting from death (indeed, plaintiff also brought WDA claims, which were not at issue on this appeal), but its purposes are different than those of the Survivor Act, as Judge Messano carefully explained.

Applying the de novo standard of review that governs appeals of decisions on summary judgment, Judge Messano ruled that all the Survivor Act claims were time-barred.  He relied, in an extensive review,on the history and text of the Survivor Act and the WDA, and noted that a contrary result would have contravened other statute of limitations provisions by extending them beyond their express time limits merely because death intervened.

Judge Messano observed that “[t]he fundamental objective of statutory interpretation is to identify and promote the Legislature’s intent.”  There was simply no indication that the 2009 amendment to the Survivor Act was intended to impliedly repeal or otherwise extend the two-year personal injury statute of limitations.  Nor was there any basis to believe that limitations statutes for other causes of action, such as defamation and trespass, which would be similarly affected if plaintiff’s view prevailed, were intended by the Legislature to be altered by the 2009 Survivor Act amendment.

But what of the language quoted at the start of this post?  Judge Messano recognized the “generally accepted canon of statutory interpretation” that courts should avoid rulings that make any word or phrase in a statute “inoperative, superfluous or meaningless.”  He acknowledged that the panel’s decision did just that regarding the quoted language.  But he invoked the countervailing principle that absurd results must be avoided, and relied on the idea that “[t]he spirit of the legislative direction prevails over the literal sense of the terms.”  He appears to have reached the right result.

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