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New Jersey Appellate Division Upholds Dismissal Of Civil Complaint, Dismissed Four Years Earlier Due To Lack Of Prosecution

By on May 28, 2021 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Maria Santiago was involved in a car crash in Paterson, New Jersey on June 27, 2013 with a car driven by Defendant Castillo-Almonte and owned by Defendant Cepeda.  She timely filed a personal injury lawsuit, suing both the driver and the owner of the vehicle involved in the collision, and was able to serve the driver with the complaint.  However, she failed to serve the owner and the driver never answered.  The case was ultimately dismissed for lack of prosecution as to both defendants. The issue in Santiago v. Castillo-Almonte, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 949 (App. Div. May 20, 2021), was whether the plaintiff had shown good cause to justify the reinstatement of her complaint four years after the dismissal.

Plaintiff filed her personal injury lawsuit just days before the running of the two year statute of limitations.  She was able to serve the driver of the motor vehicle, Castillo-Almonte, two months later.  However, despite several attempts by a process server, she was unable to serve the owner, Cepeda.  The driver, Castillo-Almonte, never answered the complaint.

Plaintiff failed to request an entry of default against Castillo-Almonte and ultimately, the Court dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice as to both defendants on January 8, 2016.

The plaintiff’s counsel took no action until March 2019 when he moved to reinstate the matter but then withdrew that motion for reasons unknown.  A second motion was filed in early May 2020, seeking reinstatement and entry of an order permitting substituted service on Cepeda’s insurance company, New Jersey Manufacturers.  In support of that motion, counsel filed a certification but nowhere explained the reason for the four year delay in seeking reinstatement of the complaint. 

The trial court judge denied the motion to reinstate, noting on the order the failure to address either the good cause or exceptional circumstances that could have allowed the case to remain dismissed for well over four years.  The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the Court made a mistake in denying her motion to reinstate her complaint in order to serve Cepeda’s liability insurance carrier.

The Appellate Division stated that it was not convinced that the exceptional circumstances was the correct standard. In a case which has not proceeded at all and the defendants would be represented by the same lawyer, the exceptional circumstances standard may not be the appropriate one.  That standard is the more demanding one and was created when there were multiple defendants. 

However, the Appellate Division noted that the plaintiff’s counsel failed to provide any reasons explaining the four year delay in moving to reinstate the complaint, which precluded even a good cause finding, much less meeting the exceptional circumstances standard to excuse the delay.

The plaintiff’s counsel failed to correct this omission on appeal.  While counsel explained his inability to serve Cepeda, he does not address the reasons for the delay in seeking reinstatement. He merely argued that the case law suggests that dismissals are routinely vacated in favor of a blameless plaintiff who has not had an opportunity to litigate her case.

The Appellate Division noted that the Courts do “look indulgently on the many reasons that could cause a plaintiff’s counsel to fail to timely move to reinstate an action” that was dismissed, “excusing even reasons that are meager and incomplete, so long as the defendant has not come forward with evidence of prejudice.” 

The Court found that the problem in this case is that counsel’s reason for the delay are wholly absent.  Because plaintiff’s counsel failed to provide any explanation at all for the “inordinately long delay” to move to reinstate the complaint, the Appellate Division found that the trial court judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion, even under the more “indulgent” good cause standard that might arguably have applied in this instance.

Hence, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s order denying reinstatement of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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