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Superior Court Could Not Compel A Plaintiff Who Filed In Civil Court To Also File A Claim Petition In The Division of Workers’ Compensation

By on February 24, 2022 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

The case of Brian Smith v. Township of South Hackensack, No. A-3258-20 (App. Div. February 18, 2022), addressed an unusual procedural question seldom, if ever, seen before.  The Appellate Division decision provides hardly any factual background at all other than this brief summary:  “Plaintiff, a volunteer firefighter, was struck by a South Hackensack fire truck at a time when, as he alleges, the individual defendants were using the truck to bar hop.”  There is no discussion of why or when the accident took place.  But Mr. Smith did not file a workers’ compensation claim.  Instead he chose to file a personal injury complaint in the Law Division against South Hackensack and other defendants.

The defendants moved to dismiss the civil suit in November 2020. They argued that the Division of Workers’ Compensation possessed exclusive jurisdiction. The Superior Court Judge transferred the case to the Division of Workers’ Compensation over plaintiff’s opposition.  However, the case never got listed because the Division of Workers’ Compensation’s computer system never recognized the case, nor listed the case, as no claim petition was ever filed. Mr. Smith then moved to reinstate his civil complaint. The judge denied the motion and wrote to the Division of Workers’ Compensation advising of the transfer order.

The Supervising Judge of the Division of Workers’ Compensation then responded that no action could be taken until the filing of a formal claim petition like any other workers’ compensation case.  The Superior Court Judge again refused to reinstate the civil case and commented that Mr. Smith could file a petition stating that the petition “is filed under court discretion.” Mr. Smith did not wish to file a petition in the division because he felt that would be a concession that there was jurisdiction in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.   

Mr. Smith then appealed to the Appellate Division, which ruled that the judge “abused her discretion in putting plaintiff to the peculiar burden of prosecuting a claim in another forum for the sole purpose of proving this other forum lacks jurisdiction over the claim.”  The Court added:

Plaintiff commenced his action in the superior court and, as the suitor and ‘master of his complaint,Puglia v. Elk Pipeline Inc., 226 N.J. 258, 282 (2016), plaintiff was entitled to pursue the matter in the superior court until such time as defendants are able – if ever – to show that the occurrence falls within the workers’ compensation laws.

The case discussed four grounds for invoking primary jurisdiction: when the issue 1) is a matter “often determined by trial judges and juries;” 2) when the Division is “best suited” to determine the issue; 3) when there is no risk of inconsistent rulings because 4) plaintiff has declined to file a petition for benefits in the Division.

In this case the key fact was that Mr. Smith never filed what is often called a protective Claim Petition in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.  When there is both a superior court action and a claim petition in the Division of Workers’ Compensation, a superior court judge may sometimes stay the civil action pending a determination of jurisdiction by the Judge of Compensation.  The Appellate Division ultimately held that the Division of Workers’ Compensation did not have exclusive jurisdiction over this claim based on a clear reading of the civil complaint as it was drafted.   

The Appellate Division added that “the Division should not have been assigned by the trial judge the task of deciding the issue that may determine whether plaintiff should be relegated to workers’ compensation benefits rather than personal injury damages.”  It should be said that the use of the word “relegated” is unfortunate.  It suggests workers’ compensation benefits are inferior.   Benefits in workers’ compensation are often more generous than those in superior court, particularly where the plaintiff is at fault or where coverage is limited.  Putting this aside, this decision is a very helpful one.  The Court clarified an important point for practitioners: a superior court judge cannot compel a plaintiff to file a claim petition.  The plaintiff is the “master of his or her complaint,” which means that a plaintiff has significant flexibility in presenting the case as he or she sees fit.

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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