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Medical Examiner’s Report Inadmissible in Wrongful Death Case, Appellate Division Rules


Originally published in the Daily
Business Review
, an ALM Media publication, on January 25,
2018.

By: Dara Kam.

A
New Jersey appeals court has ruled that a plaintiff in a wrongful death action
does not have an absolute right to use a medical examiner’s death certificate
as evidence to support his or her claim.

The
Appellate Division panel in a published ruling said that in most cases, the
certificate of death contains hearsay and net expert opinion, which, in the
present case, was properly excluded by a trial judge.

“We
hold that the [State Medical Examiner Act] does not provide an absolute right
to a civil plaintiff to admit the full contents of a certificate of death,”
wrote Appellate Division Judge Jack Sabatino.

Since
it is unlikely that the medical examiner would consent to be called as a
witness at a civil trial, a party cannot rely on his or her report without the
backup of an expert witness, Sabatino said.

“The
narrative report is filled with opinions and conclusions,” Sabatino
said.

The
lawsuit involves a plaintiff, William Quail, who is executor of the estate of
his late wife, Mary. He is suing a Shop-Rite grocery store in Stanhope.

According
to the decision, Mary Quail, whose age was not noted by the court, was injured
on Oct. 19, 2012, while she and William were at the supermarket. At the time,
Mary Quail was using a motorized cart, which struck a checkout
stand, causing the stand to fall and strike her on the leg, the court
said. She said she was not injured but died four days later from
unexplained complications.

A
medical examiner issued a certificate stating that Mary Quail’s death was an accident
resulting from “complications of blunt trauma.” A subsequent report offered
additional details, according to the ruling.

William
Quail filed a wrongful death and survivor act lawsuit against the
supermarket and sought to have the certificate of death and the
follow-up report admitted as evidence.

Sussex
County Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna rejected the reports, and dismissed
the lawsuit on summary judgment, holding that the statements on the
certificate of death and the report amounted to inadmissible hearsay.

Quail
appealed, but the Appellate Division sided with Shop-Rite.

“The
hearsay opinions within the certificate were properly excluded by the trial
court … [under] the net opinion doctrine and pertinent case law,” Sabatino said, joined by Judges Mitchel Ostrer
and Lisa Rose. “We also hold that the hearsay exception for vital statistics
does not require the admission of the examiner’s opinion.”

The
appeals court also ruled that Hanna did not abuse his discretion in declining
to reopen discovery in order to allow the plaintiff to obtain an expert
witness.

Quail
was represented by Michael Bubb of Bubb, Grogan & Cocca in
Morristown.

Shop-Rite
was represented by Mark Marino and Stephen Wellinghorst
of Hackensack’s Harwood Lloyd.

“The
ruling clears up any confusion about whether you need an expert to testify
about a death certificate,” Wellinghorst said. “You
can’t cross-examine a piece of paper.”

 

 

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