Monday, June 21, 2010

NJ court holds plaintiff is required to file a "certificate of merit" in order to file a legal malpractice action.... Bad idea

Last week the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a plaintiff in a legal malpractice action is obligated to serve a timely affidavit of merit on attorneys as part of the process in a legal malpractice claim. New Jersey has a statute that requires filing such a certificate in cases against a number of professions but it defines "attorney" as a person licensed to practice law in the state of New Jersey. In this case, at least some of the defendants had provided legal services from offices outside the state and were not admitted in New Jersey. The case is called Lacrosse v. Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Ranzburg, Ellers, LLP, and is is available here.

The court only imposed the requirement prospectively, however, because prior state case law was unsettled and federal decisions on the subject attempting to apply New Jersey law had taken arguably different approaches.

My problem with this is not the holding in this case in particular but with the notion that a plaintiff should be required to file a certicate to begin with. The court here was simply deciding whether the terms of a particular statute applied to the facts of the case. I just don't like the statute.

I think the requirement of a certifcate of merit is a bad idea for the same reason I think requiring certificates of merit in medical malpractice cases is a bad idea. In fact, I have stated before that if forced to choose between caps for damages and certificates of merit requirements I would have to support caps.

Both caps and certificates of merit requirements are popular "tort reform" measures, which, as all such measures, are looking to do one of two things: either to make it more difficult for victims to get compensation (by making it more difficult for them to get to court) or, if they can get compensation, to reduce the amount of money they can recover. Caps on damages are examples of the latter approach to reform; requiring a certificate of merit is an example of the former.

It is, admittedly, a close call as to which would be worse for victims, but I am leaning towards saying that the certficate requirements are worse. With the cap, at least the victim does get some compensation and, as long as the cap is generous, many plaintiffs may not be affected. Of course, those who would be affected would be precisely those who need the compensation the most - those who suffer catastrophic injuries - but I as I said, I am being forced to choose between bad choices and with this one at least the victims get a chance to get something.

In contrast, the approaches to reform that seek to make it more difficult for victims to find representation, to find expert witnesses willing to certify their claims, and to make it more difficult to file claims to begin with, if successful, leave the victims with no recourse and no recovery at all.

Thanks to the Legal Profession Blog for the information. For more on the case go to

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