A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that a plaintiff in a wrongful death action does not have an absolute right to use a medical examiner’s death certificate as evidence to support his or her claim.
The Appellate Division panel in a published ruling said that in most cases, the certificate of death contains hearsay and net expert opinion, which, in the present case, was properly excluded by a trial judge.
“We hold that the [State Medical Examiner Act] does not provide an absolute right to a civil plaintiff to admit the full contents of a certificate of death,” wrote Appellate Division Judge Jack Sabatino.
Since it is unlikely that the medical examiner would consent to be called as a witness at a civil trial, a party cannot rely on his or her report without the backup of an expert witness, Sabatino said.
“The narrative report is filled with opinions and conclusions,” Sabatino said.
The lawsuit involves a plaintiff, William Quail, who is executor of the estate of his late wife, Mary. He is suing a Shop-Rite grocery store in Stanhope.
According to the decision, Mary Quail, whose age was not noted by the court, was injured on Oct. 19, 2012, while she and William were at the supermarket. At the time, Mary Quail was using a motorized cart, which struck a checkout stand, causing the stand to fall and strike her on the leg, the court said. She said she was not injured but died four days later from unexplained complications.
A medical examiner issued a certificate stating that Mary Quail’s death was an accident resulting from “complications of blunt trauma.” A subsequent report offered additional details, according to the ruling.
William Quail filed a wrongful death and survivor act lawsuit against the supermarket and sought to have the certificate of death and the follow-up report admitted as evidence.
Sussex County Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna rejected the reports, and dismissed the lawsuit on summary judgment, holding that the statements on the certificate of death and the report amounted to inadmissible hearsay.
Quail appealed, but the Appellate Division sided with Shop-Rite.
“The hearsay opinions within the certificate were properly excluded by the trial court … [under] the net opinion doctrine and pertinent case law,” Sabatino said, joined by Judges Mitchel Ostrer and Lisa Rose. “We also hold that the hearsay exception for vital statistics does not require the admission of the examiner’s opinion.”
The appeals court also ruled that Hanna did not abuse his discretion in declining to reopen discovery in order to allow the plaintiff to obtain an expert witness.
Quail was represented by Michael Bubb of Bubb, Grogan & Cocca in Morristown.
Shop-Rite was represented by Mark Marino and Stephen Wellinghorst of Hackensack’s Harwood Lloyd.
“The ruling clears up any confusion about whether you need an expert to testify about a death certificate,” Wellinghorst said. “You can’t cross-examine a piece of paper.”