In his 19th century novel Bleak House, Dickens employed as a plot device Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case that dragged on and on and on until all of the proceeds from the disputed inheritance where absorbed in legal fees and costs so that, with nothing left to gain, the case was finally “over.”
Not as iconic, nor as extreme as Jarndyce, is the recent unpublished Appellate Division opinion of Palmer v. New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company, in which the court addressed the continual need to search for remedies that would keep cases from dragging on and on and on.
In Palmer, suit was brought by plaintiff for injuries resulting from an April 2000 automobile accident when her vehicle was struck by an automobile driven by Kovacs who had an automobile policy with a $300,000 liability limit. Kovacs’ insurer, New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company (NJM), rejected the claim and, based on its view of the facts, refused to make an offer at any time throughout the life of the personal injury action against Kovacs.
Prior to the personal injury jury trial, the court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on liability and thereafter in August 2004 the jury returned a damage verdict in the total sum of $460,000, which was appealed by the NJM attorney on a variety of grounds. In February 2006, the Appellate Division, in the first of two opinions on Kovacs’/NJMs’ appeal, remanded the case to the trial judge for amplification of the factual record as to the monetary effect of an offer of judgment which had been filed by plaintiff before the personal injury trial. At the conclusion of the non-jury case on this issue, the trial judge made factual determinations that resulted in a second appeal.
The Appellate Division in its second opinion of May 2006 upheld the trial court’s judgment, and Kovacs’ petition for certification was then denied. The trial court entered an amended final judgment in November 2006.
The bad faith suit of Palmer v. NJM was then filed and, after extensive discovery, the issues were tried in a 2012 jury trial that resulted in a mistrial, after which the parties agreed to a non-jury trial to determine the bad faith issues. In August 2015, the trial judge issued a 46-page opinion with detailed credibility findings in which she held that plaintiff had failed to sustain her burden of proof on the bad faith claim against NJM. Palmer then filed a notice of appeal, which resulted in an affirmance of the trial court’s decision in the unpublished Palmer opinion of December 2017, which is the subject of this editorial.
The issues in the underlying personal injury case and the subsequent bad faith case are not particularly complex or noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is the statement in the 2017 Palmer opinion: “That said, it is lamentable that it took nearly seventeen years—through no apparent fault of the parties or their counsel—for the successive litigation concerning this 2000 automobile accident to reach its final conclusion. Perhaps there are better ways to adjudicate such marathon and expensive disputes, but that is a topic the Supreme Court may or may not choose to examine prospectively.
The important point of the Palmer decision is that three appellate judges took the opportunity to focus on the process of litigation, which consumed such a lengthy period of time. Unlike British courts in the Jarndyce era, the judiciary of New Jersey has been keenly sensitive over the years to the necessity for streamlining litigation procedure in a way that will more quickly produce fair adjudication of claims raised in the course of litigation by modernization of the administration of justice, and produce cost savings to the parties.
We commend the court for the concern it expressed to find “better ways to adjudicate such marathon and expensive disputes.” We join in the court’s concern and address our request to the Supreme Court’s Civil Practice Committee to explore amendments to the rules in order to more effectively tighten the process of judicial involvement as cases stretch out over the years, winding their way to an ultimate disposition.