Supreme Court of New Jersey

The Supreme Court of New Jersey unanimously held in Linda Cowley v. Virtua Health System (A-47-18) (081891) that the “common knowledge” exception of the Affidavit of Merit Statute applies only when a simple negligence standard is at issue, and does not apply when a specific standard of care must be evaluated.  In this case involving if and how to reinsert a removed nasogastric tube, the Court reversed the judgement of the Appellate Division and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice because she failed to submit an affidavit of merit within the time required by the Affidavit of Merit Statute.

Enacted in 1995, the Affidavit of Merit Statute requires that plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases “provide each defendant with an affidavit of an appropriate licensed person that there exists a reasonable probability that the care, skill or knowledge exercised or exhibited in the treatment, practice or work that is the subject of the complaint, fell outside acceptable professional or occupational standards or treatment practices.” N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27. The statute’s primary purpose “to require plaintiffs in malpractice cases to make a threshold showing that their claim is meritorious, in order that meritless lawsuits readily [can] be identified at an early stage of litigation.” Cornblatt v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218, 242 (1998). Failure to provide an affidavit or its legal equivalent is “deemed a failure to state a cause of action,” N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-29, requiring dismissal with prejudice.

An exception to this rule is the judicially-created “common knowledge” exception which provides that an expert is not needed to demonstrate that a defendant professional breached some duty of care “where the carelessness of the defendant is readily apparent to anyone of average intelligence.” Rosenberg v. Cahill, 99 N.J. 318, 325 (1985). In those exceptional circumstances, the “jurors’ common knowledge as lay persons is sufficient to enable them, using ordinary understanding and experience, to determine a defendant’s negligence without the benefit of the specialized knowledge of experts.” Hubbard v.  Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 394 (2001). Thus, a plaintiff in a malpractice case is exempt, under the common knowledge exception, from compliance with the affidavit of merit requirement where it is apparent that “the issue of negligence is not related to technical matters peculiarly within the knowledge of [the licensed] practitioner[].” Sanzari v.  Rosenfeld, 34 N.J. 128, 142 (1961).


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