A woman sued by a health-care provider was improperly denied a jury trial as punishment for submitting jury charges not tailored to the case, a state appeals court says.
Her “demand for a jury trial enjoyed constitutional protection” and was wrongly waived, the Appellate Division said on Nov. 21 in Med-X Medical Management Services v. Grinblat, A-167-10.
The judge misapplied existing precedent and “offered no other legal authority to support the harsh sanction it imposed for defendant’s failure to comply with its pretrial order to its satisfaction,” the court said.
Batia Grinblat was on foot when she was struck by a vehicle and injured in January 2007.
The $250,000 in personal injury protection benefits she received through her automotive insurer, State Farm Indemnity Co., were used up by that June.
State Farm declined to pay for 12 trips of wheelchair van transportation provided by Med-X Medical Management Services, as did Grinblat’s health insurer, United Healthcare.
In July 2008, Med-X filed a complaint against Grinblat in the Special Civil Part, seeking $10,703 for the cost of the transportation.
Grinblat — represented by her husband, Closter solo Ronald Grinblat — filed an answer, jury demand and third-party claims against State Farm and agent Louise Hansen, who allegedly said the policy would cover Med-X’s charges.
After considerable motion practice but no resolution, the matter was dismissed without prejudice and refiled in 2010.
On May 12, 2010, Bergen County Superior Court Judge Joseph Rosa Jr. sua sponte ordered all parties to submit jury voir dire questions, proposed jury instructions and proposed verdict forms within seven days.
Rosa said the charges “must be tailored to the facts involved in the instant case” and warned that substantive issues left unaddressed “may … be deemed abandoned or may be viewed as an issue for determination by the Court rather than by a jury.”
Grinblat relied on the Model Civil Jury Charges in submitting the proposed instructions, which Rosa said amounted to noncompliance with his order. Rosa held Grinblat’s demand for a jury trial waived.
Superior Court Judge Menelaos Toskos, to whom the matter was reassigned, tried the case in August 2010, entered judgment in Med-X’s favor for $10,703 and dismissed Grinblat’s third-party claims against State Farm and Hansen.
Grinblat appealed, claiming Rosa’s ruling flouted her constitutional right to a jury trial. She cited Rule 6:5-3(d), which requires that, in Special Civil matters, a jury trial must be granted if the demand is made and not withdrawn.
In a per curiam decision, Appellate Division Judges Marianne Espinosa and John Kennedy reversed the judgment in Med-X’s favor and remanded, finding that Grinblat “was erroneously denied her right to a jury trial” in connection with the claims against her.
The court cited art. I, para. 9 of the state constitution, which preserves the right to a jury trial, and noted that Grinblat’s submission “could be considered substantial compliance with the order.” The demand was not withdrawn, which is required for waiver under R. 6:5-3(d), the panel said.
Rosa, in making his ruling, relied on state Supreme Court malpractice rulings in Velazquez v. Portadin, 163 N.J. 677 (2000), and Das v. Thani, 171 N.J. 518 (2002).
But neither “provides support for the proposition that purported deficiencies in a party’s proposed jury charges could provide a basis for a court to deem a jury demand waived,” the panel said.
“In each case, the Supreme Court reviewed the errors of trial courts in delivering jury instructions, not any deficiency in a party’s proffered jury instructions,” the court said.
The panel did affirm dismissal of Grinblat’s third-party claims against State Farm and Hansen. Because PIP benefits were statutorily created and did not predate the constitution in common law, there’s no constitutional right to a jury trial on that issue, they said.
East Brunswick solo Timothy Dey, who represents Matawan-based Med-X, says he’s “never had a Special Civil case have this [many] moving parts,” but it should progress more smoothly now with State Farm and Hansen removed.
Dey says the Grinblats’ aim is “to drag this out and get my client to give away the farm.”
“This case teaches one thing,” Dey says. “It shows that procedural fairness can be turned into a sword instead of the shield it was intended to be.”
Grinblat, reached by telephone at her home, deferred comment to Ronald, who did not return the call.