As June Ends, Three Opinions From the Supreme Court

Unlike the Supreme Court of the United States, which customarily (though apparently not this year) issues all its opinions for the term by June 30, the Supreme Court of New Jersey continues issuing opinions into the summer months, or even beyond. In the last few days, the Court has issued three opinions. Here are summaries of those opinions:

Gourmet Dining, LLC v. Union Township, 243 N.J. 1 (2020). This decision, issued today, was a 6-0 ruling, with Justice LaVecchia authoring the Court’s opinion. As discussed here, this case involved (to quote Justice LaVecchia) the question of whether “the for-profit owner of a high-end, regionally renowned restaurant situated on a college campus” was exempt from local property taxes because the restaurant was a “public purpose,” or on other grounds. The Tax Court held that there was no tax exemption. The Appellate Division reversed, but the Supreme Court today reversed and reinstated the Tax Court’s holding. “Commercial success” of the restaurant was the “paramount factor” here. Any benefit to the college (the basis for the “public purpose” claim) was at best peripheral.

City of Asbury Park v. Star Ins. Co., 242 N.J. 596 (2020). Yesterday, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina, the Court decided, unchanged, a certified question posed to it by the Third Circuit. As discussed here, that question was “Whether, under equitable principles, the made-whole doctrine applies to first-dollar risk that is allocated to an insured under an insurance policy, i.e., a self-insured retention or deductible.” The Court answered in the negative. The alternative result, Justice Fernandez-Vina said, would be “an unbargained for, unpaid for, windfall” to the insured. The Court found inapplicable Providence Washington Ins. Co. v. Hogges, 67 N.J. Super. 475 (App. Div. 1961), on which the insured, Asbury Park, placed primary reliance, and found persuasive authority from other cases that reached the same result as did the Court in this case.

Little v. Kia Motors America, Inc., 242 N.J. 557 (2020). This long-running consumer class action case, discussed in detail here, has had many twists and turns. A rare class action matter that went to trial, the case resulted in a verdict for plaintiff and the class on one of their two theories: that each class member had sustained $750 in damages for repair expenses occasioned by defendant’s breach of its express warranty (the other theory, diminution of value of all the vehicles due to the alleged defect in its brakes, did not persuade the jury). That conclusion, which allowed the class aggregate rather than individualized damages, was based on the testimony of plaintiff’s expert. The Law Division thereafter decertified the class and remitted the former class members to individualized damage proceedings with a Special Master. Plaintiff appealed, and the Appellate Division revered and reinstated the aggregate damage award.

On further review, the Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Patterson, reversed and vacated the classwide damage award by a 6-0 vote. The Court adopted principles regarding the availability of aggregate damages in a class action that were stated in Muise v. GPU, Inc., 371 N.J. Super. 13 (App. Div. 2004) [Disclosure: I represented the plaintiffs in the Muise appeal], and stated that cost of repair can be a proper measure of such damages. But the Justices held that the expert testimony here did not support an award of aggregate cost of repair damages on the facts presented. Applying the abuse of discretion standard, the Court went on to uphold the decertification of the class because damage claims could not be resolved in a common proceeding (a ruling perhaps unique to the facts of this case, since in general differences in damages do not defeat class certification), and to affirm the Special Master’s rulings in the individual claims proceedings. This was a bitter pill for the previously certified class to swallow, especially since (as the Appellate Division observed) “[t]he defense did not deny that [the subject vehicles] had brake problems.” Moreover, a certified class of Pennsylvania citizens who had these same vehicles obtained aggregate damages after a trial there, see Samuel-Bassett v. Kia Motors America, Inc., 34 A.3d 1 (Pa. 2011).