No April Fool

On April Fool’s Day, 1968, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided McLaughlin v. Bassing, 51 N.J. 410 (1968).  In a one-sentence ruling, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s dismissal of a personal injury complaint, 100 N.J. Super. 67 (App. Div. 1967), where the plaintiff’s counsel did not issue the summons until over eight months after filing the complaint.  Plaintiffs conceded that their counsel’s delay was “inexcusable,” and Judge (later Justice) Sullivan, who dissented, found it “more than that.” 

The Law Division, “upon the concept of ‘substantial justice,'” denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to issue the summons within ten days, as required by the Court Rules.  The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal, which seems unusual, especially since defendants stipulated that they were not prejudiced by the delay.  In a per curiam opinion, the majority held that “fail[ure] to enforce the [Court] rules as to dismissals under the circumstances here present would be to virtually eliminate these rules.”  The majority did not find the absence of prejudice to defendants to be a reason to affirm the decision of the Law Division. 

The facts, as recounted by Judge Sullivan, practically gave rise to an estoppel against defendants.  Moreover, the injured plaintiff already had more than $50,000 in special damages as of the date of the Appellate Division’s ruling.  Those facts, along with the absence of prejudice to defendants, led Judge Sullivan to vote to uphold the Law Division’s refusal to dismiss the complaint.  The Supreme Court’s one-sentence ruling adopted Judge Sullivan’s opinion and reinstated the complaint.

This case is still one of the leading authorities on the subject of timely issuance of summonses.  But, in the current environment where lengthy opinions are often issued,  the concise nature of the opinions is noteworthy.  The opinion of the Appellate Division majority takes up only two pages in the Superior Court Reports.  Judge Sullivan, who virtually always wrote short opinions, laid out his views in just one page.