The COVID-19 pandemic caused courts to close for an extended period of time. Originally, the world planned to stop normal life for two weeks, and similarly, courts closed for two weeks. In New Jersey, the original Omnibus Order of March 17, 2020, tolled the statute of limitations from March 17, 2020 to March 27, 2020 by considering those dates legal holidays.[i]
Statute of Limitations
Generally, the New Jersey Court rules extend the statute of limitations to account for the legal holiday if and only if the holiday falls on the last day of the period.[ii] This is done to prevent the shortening of any statute of limitations. As the pandemic drew on, the courts extended the tolling period.
Eventually, the court decided any date between March 17, 2020 and May 10, 2020, 55 days in total, would be treated as a legal holiday[iii]. Thus, any matter whose statute of limitations ran between March 17, 2020 and May 10, 2020 had to file by Monday, May 11, 2020 to be considered timely. The statute of limitations, enacted by the Legislature[iv], was created to prevent potential defendants from being subjected to unfair prosecution with the passage of time when relevant evidence may be lost. Essentially providing deadlines to file litigation and created to prevent prejudice to all parties, the state of limitations ensures litigation does not get stale and the evidence does not deteriorate with time.
In Barron v. Gersten and Lippai,[v] the appellate court determined COVID-19 court orders did not extend the statute of limitations for 55 days. The court instead treated the 55 days from March 17, 2020 to May 10, 2020 as legal holidays. Therefore, the 55 days would be treated as set forth under New Jersey Court Rule 1:3-1, “in which event the period runs until the end of the next day that is neither a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday.”[vi] Accordingly, the Ominbus Orders did not extend the statute of limitations, but provided time for filing on the next day business could be conducted.
Plaintiff filed the complaint eight days after the statute of limitations. The trial court dismissed the complaint.[vii] Plaintiff’s accident occurred on June 21, 2018, and the complaint was filed on June 29, 2020, eight days after the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations.[viii] The correct filing date would have been on or before Monday, June 22, 2020.
By June 22, 2020, the court no longer counted the days as legal holidays. In fact, the tolling orders had come to an end based on the June 11, 2020 order.[ix] Nevertheless, plaintiff filed the complaint after the statute of limitations. Accordingly, defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to timely file within the statute of limitations. Plaintiff’s counsel opposed the motion, arguing the court orders tolled all statute of limitations for 55 days.[x]
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint. Specifically, the appellate court relied on the court orders noting the 55 days from March 17, 2020 to May 10, 2020 were deemed legal holidays.[xi] The court re-iterated the calculations of legal holidays were based on the court’s Rule 1:3.[xii] Using Rule 1:3, the court concluded weekends and holidays were not added to the statute of limitations but included within the time period, unless it was the last day of the period.[xiii] If the statute of limitations ran on a weekend or legal holiday, only then did the court provide additional time to prevent shortening the statute of limitations period.
However, the plaintiff in this matter filed the complaint eight days after the statute of limitations ran. To claim the statute of limitations was extended by 55 days for each and every claim would be prejudicial to all future defendants. The appellate court disagreed with plaintiff’s argument and dismissed the complaint for failure to file within a timely manner[xiv]. The court ruled to find any other way would have been re-writing legislation and overstepping beyond the court’s role.[xv] The court’s role is to interpret the legislation.
Essentially, the appellate court declined to extend the statute of limitations, forcing all parties who have suffered an injury by a wrongful act, neglect, or default of any person to file their complaints within two years of the date of the accident. Accordingly, the current New Jersey statute of limitations[xvi] stands without any modification due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
The two-year statute of limitations remains in effect and for those practicing in New Jersey, the published decision discussed above can be relied upon to dismiss claims which were filed after the statute of limitations. This may mean, unfortunately, delays related to COVID-19 will lead to dismissed claims.
[i] New Jersey Court Order dated March 17, 2020 signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner
[ii] R. 1:3-1.
[iii] New Jersey Court Order dated June 11, 2020 signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner
[iv] N.J.S.A § 2A:14-2 (2016)
[v] Juan Barron v. Shelley Gersten, ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2022)
[vi] R. 1:3-1
[vii] Juan Barron v. Shelley Gersten, ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2022) (slip op. at 2)
[ix] New Jersey Court Order dated June 11, 2020
[x] Juan Barron v. Shelley Gersten, ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2022) (slip op. at 2)
[xi] Id. (slip op. at 10)
[xii] Id. (slip op. at 10)
[xiv] Id. (slip op. at 10)
[xv] Id. (slip op. at 9-10)
[xvi] N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.