Two by Justice Albin

Fowler v. Akzo Nobel Chemicals, Inc., 251 N.J. 300 (2022); Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden, 251 N.J. 415 (2022). As Justice Albin’s tenure on the Supreme Court nears its end (he will turn 70 tomorrow), he issued two new opinions. One is a tort case, decided by a 3-2 vote, and the other is an election matter in which Justice Albin wrote for a unanimous Court today.

Today’s opinion was the Linden Democratic Committee matter. As summarized here, the question in the case centered on what the Municipal Vacancy Act, N.J.S.A. 40A:16-1 et seq. (“the Vacancy Law”), had to say about who was entitled to serve out an unexpired term for a seat on the Linden City Council. Plaintiff Democratic Committee offered three names of potential successors but the governing body declined to select any of them and left the seat vacant until the next election. Despite that, the Democratic Committee swore in one of the three persons. When the City refused to recognize that appointment, the Committee and the proposed appointee sued under the Civil Rights Act, which makes attorneys’ fees available to successful claimants.

The Chancery Division upheld the appointment and awarded attorneys’ fees. The City appealed and the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the Act allowed the City to keep the seat vacant. But the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that ruling today:

“In amending Section 11 and N.J.S.A. 40A:16-13 (Section 13) of the Vacancy Law in 1990, the Legislature removed the governing body’s discretion to keep vacant a seat previously occupied by a nominee of a political party. Instead, the Legislature empowered the municipal committee of the political party whose nominee previously occupied the vacant seat to submit three names to the governing body. N.J.S.A. 40A:16-11. Section 11 mandates that the governing body choose one of the municipal committee’s three nominees. Ibid.

“Under the 1990 amendments to the Vacancy Law, members of the governing body may not deny a member of the opposite political party or a dissident faction of a political party a seat on that legislative council. See L. 1990, c. 57. Simply stated, the 1990 amendments constrain the majority party from arbitrarily depriving the minority party or a party’s dissident faction from representation on the governing body.”

Justice Albin said that the Court[‘s conclusion was the result of construing the Vacancy Law, an exercise in which the Court applied de novo review. The Court examined, in particular, four sections of the Vacancy Law and how they “interlock[ed].” But “[t]o the extent that any ambiguity exists concerning how the interlocking sections were intended [to] work, the legislative history resolves any lingering doubt.”

Justice Albin traced the history of the Vacancy Law from its enactment in 1979 through amendments in 1980 and 1990. He also cited Committee and Sponsor’s Statements. In short, “[t]he clear intent behind the 1990 amendments to Section 11 was to constrain the discretion that the 1980 amendments gave to the governing body in replacing officeholders affiliated with a political party.” The Court thus reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the matter to that court to consider “defendants’ challenge to the findings of the Chancery Court on the civil rights claim or to the award of attorneys’ fees and costs.”

The Fowler decision, an asbestos failure to warn case, was more controversial, as the Court split 3-2 (Judge Fuentes did not participate). The issues there were (1) whether Union Carbide, which supplied asbestos to the employer of plaintiff’s decedent, a worker who regularly handled that asbestos, could satisfy its duty to warn by notifying the employer about the risks of asbestos, without also having to place warnings on the bags of asbestos themselves, and (2) whether a jury charge regarding medical causation was sufficient even though it deviated from language employed in Sholtis v. American Cyanamid Co., 238 N.J. Super. 8 (App. Div. 1989) (invoking “frequency, regularity and proximity” in the medical causation inquiry).

Justice Albin’s majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Pierre-Louis, held that “[t]he duty to put an adequate warning on the product may not be discharged by warnings and information to the employer.” The majority also held that “the Sholtis test is adaptable to varying scenarios and should not be rigidly and inflexibly applied. By any objective standard, the essence of the Sholtis test was conveyed to the jury in the distinctive circumstances of this case.”

Justice Solomon filed a separate concurring and dissenting opinion. He concurred with the majority as to the Sholtis jury charge issue. But he joined the dissent, written by Justice Patterson, on the question of the adequacy of the warnings.

The majority stated that its ruling on the warnings merely conformed with two leading cases, Coffman v. Keene Corp., 133 N.J. 581 (1993), and Theer v. Philip Carey Co., 133 N.J. 610 (1993). Justice Patterson, however, contended that the majority opinion was “at odds” with those cases. The majority, she said, had “changed the law, and it should say so.” Justice Patterson also believed that the “frequency, regularity and proximity” considerations of Sholtis were “factors that this Court has repeatedly stated are crucial to the question of medical causation” and could not be replaced by what she called a “generic” medical causation charge. “Today’s decision sends the message that a trial court need not charge a jury in accordance with a standard that this Court prescribes if it prefers a different test.”

The three opinions total 84 pages and are well worth reading in full. Much of the dispute between the majority and the dissent center on their respective views of the prior cases that both opinions discuss.