Bill Proposes Screening Panels To Sift Out Frivolous Suits vs. Public Entities
July 15, 2010
Two state legislators are pushing a measure to help ward off lawsuits, many allegedly frivolous, that are stretching the threadbare finances of state and local governments.
The bill, introduced July 1, would establish pre-litigation screening panels whose favorable review of a suit’s merit would be critical to its success.
The panels, staffed by retired judges appointed by the chief justice on recall, would function as quasi-courts. Cases would be referred to them once answers are filed. The judges would have power to subpoena witnesses, documents or other evidence.
Based on all information adduced, a panel would opine whether a suit is frivolous or filed in bad faith or for harassment. The findings would be sent to the Superior Court, which could dismiss or modify the claims.
The panels also could impose sanctions on attorneys found to have acted unreasonably or in bad faith. The sanctions could consist of a civil penalty or an order to pay all or some of the public entities’ defense costs.
“Such lawsuits against public entities are especially egregious since the public entities are forced into expending a great deal of their limited resources in defending such claims,” even if they are eventually dismissed, say the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, and Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson.
The bill “enhances the current procedures and establishes an effective dispute resolution mechanism early in the process,” they say, referring to the frivolous lawsuit statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1, and the court rule on frivolous litigation, R. 1:4-8, both of which provide for sanctions.
The bill, S-2184, will likely be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, says he is “open-minded” but skeptical about whether it is necessary. “I think [the Tort Claims Act] already is a deterrent that provides for pretty strong immunity,” says Scutari, a lawyer himself. “But you do have to strike a balance between the need to protect public entities and the need to protect citizens from negligent actions, and sometimes public entities are negligent.”
Scutari says he is not aware of any upswing in frivolous lawsuits against public entities such as might warrant the measure proposed. “Let me see some evidence and then we’ll give the bill some consideration,” he says.
Judiciary officials have not yet reviewed the bill, spokeswoman Tammy Kendig says.