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NJ: Legal Malpractice and Appellate Procedure

Gautum v. Conte, 239 N.J. Super.362 (App. Div. 1990)

Student Contributor: Daniel Schick

NJ Underlying Medical Malpractice Action

Facts: Plaintiffs retained Conte to represent them in a medical malpractice claim. Conte then joined the law firm of De Luca and filed the medical malpractice action. Plaintiffs’ complaint was dismissed for failure to answer interrogatories and comply with a court order. Despite plaintiffs’ numerous requests for information, Conte never apprised them of the dismissal and in October, 1980 they learned of it from the trial court.

In 1983, Plaintiffs filed a legal malpractice action against Conte and De Luca seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Plaintiffs alleged that their suit was dismissed as a result of the attorneys’ malpractice, and that they had acted deliberately in failing to advise them of the dismissal of their personal injury action.

A jury awarded Plaintiffs both compensatory and punitive damages. De Luca appealed and Conte improperly filed a Notice of Joining Appeal which failed to transform De Luca’s appeal into a joint appeal. The Appellate Division reversed the judgment against De Luca alone on the ground that the jury instructions were erroneous. The Law Division subsequently held that the earlier reversal also applied to Conte, and therefore, vacated the judgment against him. The Gautams appealed the Law Division’s decision to vacate the judgment as to Conte.

Issue: Is Conte entitled to the benefit of the judgment entered in favor of his codefendant De Luca even though he was not a party to the appeal?

Ruling: Although Conte had ignored well-settled and fundamentally sound procedural rules of appellate procedure, it would be manifestly unjust to deny him the benefit of the Appellate Division’s judgment in favor of De Luca on the basis of a jury charge which was materially deficient. Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the Law Division’s decision to vacate the judgment against Conte and remanded the matter to the trial court for a new trial as to Conte alone.

Lesson: The trial court has the inherent power to vacate or set aside a judgment against a non-appealing party to avoid unjust results.

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Posted in: New Jersey, Torts/Personal Injury