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Third Circuit Holds Medical Malpractice Plaintiff Substantially Complied With Affidavit Of Merit Statute


HLD, v. 30, n. 6 (June 2002)

Third Circuit Holds Medical Malpractice Plaintiff Substantially Complied With Affidavit Of Merit Statute

Plaintiff Romona Newell sued Abraham Ruiz, M.D., and the Radiology Professional Association (collectively defendants) for medical malpractice, alleging that it failed to properly read and interpret her mammograms and failed to detect breast cancer. Newell filed her suit in a federal district court in New York, and complied with New York's statutory requirement that she submit a "Certificate of Merit," which certifies that Newell's attorney discussed the case with a physician who found a reason to believe that defendants committed malpractice. Defendants filed their answers in the New York court. Shortly thereafter, the case was transferred to a federal district court in New Jersey. About eight months later, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to comply with New Jersey's "Affidavit of Merit" statute. Newell responded and supplied an Affidavit of Merit, although it was untimely. Newell argued that she substantially complied with the statute and had a meritorious claim. The district court granted defendants motion to dismiss and Newell appealed.

The Third Circuit held that Newell substantially complied with the New Jersey statute. The appeals court reiterated that the doctrine of substantial compliance requires the defaulting party to show "(1) the lack of prejudice to the defending party; (2) a series of steps taken to comply with the statute involved; (3) a general compliance with the purpose of the statute; (4) a reasonable notice of the petitioner's claim; and (5) a reasonable explanation why there was not strict compliance with the statute." The appeals court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that, if "a reasonable effectuation of the statute's purpose has occurred," a plaintiff need not strictly comply with the statute.

Applying the factors above, the appeals court first determined that there was no legal prejudice to defendants because Newell filed a Certificate of Merit in New York. Second, the appeals court determined that, because she complied with the New York statute, Newell "effectively made a threshold showing that the case had merit at an early stage of the litigation, the primary goal of New Jersey's Affidavit of Merit Statute." Third, the appeals court determined that defendants had reasonable notice of the malpractice claim. Finally, the appeals court noted that the New Jersey statute does not address the statute's applicability to cases that are transferred from other jurisdictions, or in cases in which a "merit requirement" has been met in the transferor state. The appeals court determined that Newell could have reasonably believed that the New York statute applied to her case and that she had satisfied the merit requirement. The appeals court concluded that Newell had substantially complied with the Affidavit of Merit Statute and therefore the district court erred in dismissing her claim.

Newell v. Ruiz, No. 00-2091, 2002 WL 503634 (3d Cir. Apr. 10, 2002) (11 pages).

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