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Appointed: 1993. Born: Teaneck, 1943. College: Manhattanville College, 1964 Law Degree: Seton Hall University School of Law, 1972. Previous Experience: Superior Court, Essex County, General Equity Part, 1984-93; Schumann, Hession, Kennelly & Dorment, Jersey City, 1973-83; Appellate Division Judge Robert Matthews, law clerk, 1972-73. Known For: Not being afraid of controversy. In 1992, while sitting in Hudson County, Dorothea O’C. Wefing, overturned a $2.16 million jury verdict for the wife and estate of a truck driver killed in an explosion at a chemical storage company. Robert Lelak, with his head and hands charred and his stomach skewered by metal shrapnel from the blast, writhed on the ground in agony, fully conscious, for five or six minutes before he died. Yet, Wefing called the verdict excessive. That drew her a scathing rebuke by the Appellate Division. “Jury verdicts should be upset for excessiveness only in clear cases,” the panel wrote. “The trial court seems to have concluded otherwise. We say ‘seems’ because the trial court did not . . . render a carefully reasoned and factually particularized opinion.” After a retrial, the plaintiffs won $2.15 million. Perhaps as a consequence of that experience, Wefing has girded herself against fear of reversal. She’s not afraid to make unpopular rulings. She has dissented at least seven times in her nine years on the appeals court. The Supreme Court has upheld her written opinions, rulings and dissents, citing her by name, three times. Twice it has reversed her written opinions, rulings and dissents, citing her by name. Her best-known ruling in recent years was the one that relieved lawyers of the yoke of Circle Chevrolet v. Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, 142 N.J. 280 (1995), which had greatly restricted the conditions under which legal malpractice suits could be brought. Her 1996 ruling in Olds v. Donnelly, A-2749-94T3, coming after a year of carping by the bar about Circle Chevrolet, returned malpractice law to normalcy. The Supreme Court, affirming, said with considerable understatement, “the application of the [entire-controversy] doctrine to legal-malpractice claims has not fulfilled its expectations.” Wefing’s record shows sympathy for underdogs. She has criticized trial judges who express disbelief from the bench at the claims of the handicapped; favored judges talking to children to decide custody; favored the disabled in widening definitions of causal traumatic events; favored the visitation rights of lesbian ex-girlfriends with the former partner’s children; admonished prosecutors who make race an issue in closing statements; and supported an unwed mother in a libel case against a judge. On the other hand, she ruled that a warrantless drug search of a patient’s hospital room is permissible in some circumstances, State v. Stott, 335 N.J. Super. 611, and police officers posing as prospective buyers of real estate may eyeball the inside of a suspect’s house, State v. Ferrari, 323 N.J. Super. 54. In fact, attorneys are hard-pressed to identify Wefing’s politics. “She can go either way,” says a Monmouth County lawyer who has lost and won before her. “She’s an old-fashioned, classic jurist.” In terms of demeanor, Wefing likes to be in control and is not shy about letting practitioners know it. She’s “tough minded,” says a Hudson County lawyer. “Real sharp, intellectually capable, not a warm and fuzzy person, but not nasty either,” says a Middlesex County attorney. “Serious intellectual wattage, although you might not agree with her,” says another. Yet another attorney, one who filed “a big mess” of an insurance dispute, says, “I stacked the boxes from floor to ceiling — and she knew the case. She really had command of the facts.” Wefing is stern about keeping decorum in the court and will snap an attorney back into line if she feels it’s breaking down. She did that recently to one advocate complaining of the amount of time and money he had lost fighting the action. Wefing dressed him down for giving a bad impression to a group of law students watching from the gallery. “That’s not what we do. I don’t want any of these students to walk out of here thinking that’s what we do,” she said. Similarly, in February 2000, she wrote a letter to the Law Journal scolding a reporter for publishing four-letter words other lawyers had uttered anonymously about a federal judge. “Most people consider such language unacceptable both personally and professionally. There is no reason to include it. Doing so only serves to spread the view that insulting language is tolerable,” she wrote.

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