Relation Back and Other Statute of Limitations Issues

Walker v. Choudhary, 425 N.J. Super. 135 (App. Div. 2012).  This was a medical malpractice and wrongful death action.  Three defendants, a doctor, a medical group, and a company that owns a hospital, won summary judgment based on the statute of limitations.  Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division, in an opinion by Judge St. John, reversed as to each defendant.  Judge St. John observed that the Appellate Division employs the same summary judgment standard as does a trial level judge, and that no deference is owed to the motion judge’s interpretation of issues of law.

The doctor defendant who won summary judgment, Dr. Kiger, was added after the original complaint was filed.  Plaintiff asserted that the doctrine of “relation back,” embodied in Rule 4:9-3, made the claims against Dr. Kiger timely.  After a useful discussion of relation back, Judge St. John ruled that, in these circumstances, there should have been an evidentiary hearing, under Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267 (1973), to determine whetn Dr. Kiger learned of the case and whether the later addition of her as a defendant prejudiced her defense.

The issue as to the medical group, of which Dr. Kiger was a part, and the hospital company, was whether the dismissal of Dr. Kiger on remand would effectively exonerate the other defendants based on res judicata or respondeat superior.  Judge St. John concluded that it would not.  A dismissal of Dr. Kiger on limitations grounds would not be an “adjudication on the merits” under Rule 4:37-2(d) as to those defendants, but only as to Dr. Kiger.  Since an “adjudication on the merits” is required in order for res judicata to apply, the other defendants could not invoke res judicata.

As to respondeat superior, Judge St. John noted that plaintiff could have pursued the medical group and the hospital company even without suing Dr. Kiger.  “[I]t would be incongruous to hold that plaintiff’s claim against [the medical group] must fail because Kiger was named and then dismissed because the claim was time-barred, while in the same breath observing that the same claim against [the medical group] would survive if Kiger had not been named at all.”