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NJ: Entire Controversy Doctrine Not a Bar to Separate Legal Malpractice Action

Donohue v. Kuhn, 696 A.2d 664 (N.J. 1997) (PDF)

Student Contributor: John Anzalone

Facts: Plaintiffs retained Defendant attorney to represent them in a wrongful death and survivorship suit. The attorney failed to file the cases before the applicable statute of limitations.  The Plaintiffs secured another attorney after the statute of limitations passed, but the suit for wrongful death was dismissed for not being filed within the statute of limitations period. While the survivorship claim case was on going, the plaintiffs brought this malpractice suit.

Issue: Does the "entire controversy doctrine" prevent the Plaintiffs from suing Defendant attorney because they failed to add a legal malpractice claim against Defendant attorney in the survivorship case that was still before the trial court?

Ruling: In reversing the Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the entire controversy doctrine did not require that the Plaintiffs had to amend their complaint to add an attorney that allegedly committed legal-malpractice claims in the survivorship suit to that case for their suit against the Defendant attorney to go forward.

Lesson: Legal malpractice claims are exempt from the entire controversy doctrine in NJ. A plaintiff’s failure to add a claim  against a malpracticing attorney to an ongoing case in which it is alleged that the attorney committed an act or acts of negligence that harmed the plaintiff is not grounds for dismissing the case.

Editor’s Note: This case was one of three on this issue decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court on the same day. See Olds v. Donnelly, 150 N.J. 424  (PDF).  See also, NJ Court Rule 4:30A.

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Posted in: Litigation, New Jersey, Torts/Personal Injury