In the matter of Mejia v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., decided March 16, 2020 (2020), New Jersey’s Supreme Court has clarified the standing of a third-party defendant in civil litigation, when the plaintiff has not directly named that party as a defendant in the case. The case which the Court confronted was a medical malpractice action, based on allegations that Quest Diagnostics and two of its employees (the Quest defendants) had failed to detect cervical cancer in the decedent, Tania Mejia.
The Quest defendants impleaded the decedent’s gynecologist and family practitioner as third-party defendants in the action, alleging causes of action for indemnity and contribution. Ultimately, the plaintiff amended their complaint to name the family practitioner directly, but never named the gynecologist, Dr. Jacinto Fernandez, directly.
Before trial, Dr. Fernandez filed a motion seeking to be treated “as the defendants were treated in” Jones v. Morey’s Pier, Inc., 230 N.J. 142 (2017), and Burt v. West Jersey Health Systems, 339 N.J. Super. 296 (App. Div. 2001). In Jones, a third-party defendant was barred from suit pursuant to the notice-of-claim requirements of the Tort Claims Act, to which the defendant was entitled as a public entity. In Burt, a medical malpractice defendant was dismissed from the case due to the plaintiff’s failure to provide an “affidavit of merit,” which is a requirement for a prima facie medical malpractice claim. In both cases, the other defendants were permitted to present evidence of their contribution and indemnification claims as to the dismissed parties, and to ask the jury to apportion or allocate fault as to those parties at the time of trial.
Importantly, in this action, the Quest defendants and third-party plaintiffs had filed a motion asking the court to disregard the requirement to serve an affidavit of merit. Dr. Fernandez never opposed this motion, and it was granted. Given this background, the trial court denied Fernandez’s motion to be treated similarly to the Burt and Jones parties, contending that those parties were “dismissed meritoriously,” which had not happened in this context.
The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It held that the third-party defendants were subject to the contribution claims filed against them by the alleged joint tortfeasors, unless there existed an independent right to dismissal of those claims against them. In this matter, because Fernandez presented no meritorious right to dismissal, Fernandez was to be treated as an active third-party defendant who must participate at trial. However, the Court concurred with Fernandez’s position in a limited respect, and held that plaintiff could not recover from Fernandez directly. However, if a jury determined that the Quest defendants were sixty percent or more at fault, and liable for the entire verdict, those parties would have monetary recourse in contribution as to Dr. Fernandez. If Fernandez were found 60% or more at fault, the plaintiff could only recover in accordance with the fault of the other parties; and if Fernandez were found 100% at fault, plaintiff simply could not recover.
This decision clarifies common questions as to the standing of third-party defendants who are not joined as direct defendants to a suit, and their position at the time of trial. Unless the plaintiff’s direct claim against the party is dismissed meritoriously, the third-party contribution or indemnity claims by a joint tortfeasor will require that third-party’s participation at trial. For more information on this topic, please contact MKCI’s Tom Emala at firstname.lastname@example.org.