Ignorance Is Bliss: Relation Back Doctrine Challenged in NJ.

A recent development in New Jersey case law has cast the doctrines of “relation-back” and res judicata in a new light.

In Walker v. Choudhary, the executor of an estate sued several doctors, the medical group with which they were affiliated, the hospital where they worked, and the company that owned it for wrongful death and medical malpractice.  Although the complaint was filed and served on the named defendants within the two-year statute of limitations, the plaintiff eventually discovered that the decedent’s attending physician had not been named in the complaint.

The plaintiff was able to file an amended complaint by stating that the claims against the attending physician related back to the original complaint.  However, after discovery, the lower court granted a motion for summary judgment as to the attending physician, based upon the statute of limitations.  The court also granted summary judgment in favor of the medical practice group and the company that owned the hospital on the theory that they could not be separately liable if the claims against the attending physician had been dismissed.  The other parties remaining in the case were voluntarily dismissed.

Upon review, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter for an evidentiary hearing as to the attending physician’s knowledge of the pending litigation and whether she was prejudiced by the delay in naming her as a defendant to the action.  The court also reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the medical practice group with which the doctor was affiliated, and the company that owns the hospital where the alleged malpractice occurred.

As to the “relation-back” doctrine, the court found that although it was likely that plaintiff’s mistake in naming the wrong party was based on failure to read the medical records, there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the newly named party had notice of the action because other doctors at her practice were served at the office where she worked, and because she admitted in her deposition that she had conversations with them about the lawsuit around the time of service.  The court ultimately determined that, on remand, an evidentiary hearing should be held to determine the scope of new party’s knowledge of the litigation and whether she would be prejudiced in her ability to defend against the action.

In addition, the court examined the doctrines of respondeat superior and res judicata as to the medical group and owner of the hospital where the doctor was employed.  Because plaintiff could have sued the doctor and her employer in separate actions, it did not make sense to dismiss the action against the employer merely because the action against the doctor was dismissed.  The court also stated that, for purposes of claims of respondeat superior, a dismissal of claims against an employee on the basis of the statute of limitations was not a dismissal on the merits as to the employer.  The dismissal was only “on the merits” as to the employee doctor.  This is a new interpretation of the principles outlined in prior New Jersey case law, and may change how dismissals with prejudice based on procedural motions such as the one here are viewed in the future.

Special thanks to Christina Emerson for her contribution to this post.

If you would like more information, please write to mbono@wcmlaw.com.