As we discussed in detail in our last few blog posts, knowing the statute of limitations, the legal deadline by which you must file your case with the court, is absolutely critical.
This is because the statute of limitations is justice at its harshest in practice. If you miss the deadline for filing your case, you could be forever prevented from recovering damages for your injuries. If you have a serious case with significant injuries, these consequences can seem drastic and unfair, and often they are.
To mitigate the harsh practical application of statutes of limitation, New Jersey and New York courts have developed a number of “common law” (court-made) and legislative doctrines that work to create categories of special circumstances which soften the impact of strict application of statutes of limitation.
These categories of “special circumstances” allow you to extend or “toll” the statute of limitations provided that certain conditions are met. The practical effect is to expand the statute of limitations, so a case that might ordinarily be past the deadline for filing can be filed months or even years “late.” We explain further below.
The Doctrine of Substantial Compliance
The doctrine of substantial compliance is a rule of “equity” (fairness) that allows the Court to grant reprieve from the strict application of the statute of limitations in cases which are close calls or represent circumstances where litigants have really tried, but nonetheless failed, to comply with the applicable statute or rule that governs the case. Cornblatt v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218, 240, 708 A.2d 401 (1998).
In order to invoke the doctrine of substantial compliance, the party seeking the benefit of the rule must establish four factors: (1) the lack of prejudice to the defending party; (2) a series of steps taken to comply with the statute involved; (3) a general compliance with the purpose of the statute; (4) a reasonable notice of petitioner’s claim and (5) a reasonable explanation why there was not a strict compliance with the statute. Bernstein v. Board of Trustees of Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund, 151 N.J. Super. 71, 376 A.2d 563 (1977),
Creative litigants have made use of the doctrine of substantial compliance in a variety of different cases and circumstances, and courts have been indulgent of these creative efforts, for the most part! We discuss some of the different applications of the doctrine below.
Substantial Compliance Under the Tort Claims Act
Substantial compliance is now commonly invoked as a defense to the Special Statute of Limitations established by the New Jersey Tort Claims (as discussed in our prior blog post on the topic!). Substantial compliance may allow an otherwise late tort claim to a public entity to survive dismissal so long as notice was provided had minor or technical deficiencies that did not “deprive the public entity of the effective notice contemplated by the statute.” Velez v. City of Jersey City, 358 N.J. Super. 224, 238, 817 A.2d 409 (App.Div.2003). In cases where the notice provided was more substantively deficient or untimely New Jersey Courts have refused to apply substantial compliance to salvage otherwise defective claims. LeBron v. Sanchez, 407 N.J. Super. 204, 214-15, 970 A.2d 399 (App.Div.2009).
For instance, in one seminal New Jersey Supreme Court case, the high court refused to allow a late claim to proceed under the doctrine of substantial compliance, where the delay in filing was caused by the neglect of the Plaintiff’s attorney. D.D. v. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, 213 N.J. 130 (2013). The court suggested that even if the Plaintiff’s attorney were found to be guilty of legal malpractice, it would not be enough to salvage the Plaintiff’s case! Id.
Substantial Compliance Under the Affidavit of Merit Statute
Another technical or extra statute of limitation that is imposed in some specialized personal injury and tort cases is the “affidavit of merit” requirement. In essence, this rule requires the person bringing suit against a specialized or licensed professional to get a written statement (affidavit) from another licensed person in the same profession to state, under oath, that the case is legitimate (has merit).
The affidavit merit statute requires that the person bringing suit file their specialized affidavit within sixty (60) days of the date the defendant files an “answer” to their complaint. The doctrine of substantial compliance is commonly invoked to attempt to remedy cases where litigants miss the deadline for filing their affidavit of merit.
Substantial compliance with the affidavit of merit rule hinges more on whether some kind of expert notice was provided to the Defendant. Ferreira v. Rancocas Orthopedic Assocs., 178 N.J. 144 (2003). In other words, even where affidavits of merit do not specifically contain all the requisite information and detail, courts have refused to dismiss cases so long as some, albeit defective, affidavit was provided within the statutory time frame. Id. Alan J. Cornblatt, P.A. v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218 (1998).
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To learn more about the doctrine of substantial compliance and other exceptions to statutes of limitations. personal injury and malpractice lawsuits and civil litigation in general, reach out to our office today at 201-925-0660 for a free consultation. The Law Office of Alexander Schachtel represents clients with personal injury cases, medical malpractice and legal malpractice cases, and general commercial, civil and business litigation across Jersey City, Hoboken, Hudson County and Northern and Central New Jersey and New York City.