NJ Supreme Court holds that Guardianship proceeding may be needed in midst of personal injury case

There are times that a personal injury action has been filed, but the plaintiff has cognitive impairments that impede his or her ability to fully participate in the litigation or understand the nature and impact of settlement discussions. In some instances, the cognitive impairment predated the filing of the lawsuit (or was allegedly caused by the negligent actions of the defendants). In other cases, the cognitive impairment develops later  — or worsens significantly — as the litigation progresses. In New Jersey, the Court has authority to appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to act on behalf of the impaired party. The Guardian ad Litem’s responsibility is to act in the best interest of the cognitively impaired individual. A case just decided by the NJ Supreme Court  addresses the question of whether appointment of a GAL is sufficient or if it is necessary to  appoint an attorney/advocate and a Guardian of person or Property to exercise the individual’s rights to settle or further litigate.

S.T. vs 1515 Broad Street was a personal injury action filed by S.T. for injuries allegedly caused by negligence on the part of the defendant property owner. Among other things, S.T. sustained a traumatic brain injury which led to a finding by the Social Security Administration that she was disabled. She was found to have a “markedly impaired ” ability to process complex information. In the course of settlement discussions, S.T.’s attorney felt it necessary under the NJ Rules of Professional Conduct 1.14 to ask the Court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem and arrange for a forensic evaluation of S.T.’s capacity to continue acting on her own behalf as the client. After reviewing the examination report, the Court did appoint the Guardian ad Litem and authorized him to accept or reject a settlement on behalf of the plaintiff. Over vigorous objection by S.T., the GAL consented to a settlement, which the trial court approved. The Appellate Division sustained that approval. The NJ Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court held that after receipt of the GAL’s recommendation, the Court was required to appoint independent counsel for S.T. and conduct a formal Guardianship inquiry, applying the standards for determining whether a person lacks capacity to govern herself or manage her affairs which is specified in the statutes and court rules. The Court stated, “The court should not cede its responsibility and authority as
the decisionmaker to the guardian ad litem. Nothing in New Jersey’s court rules, statutes,or case law suggests that a guardian ad litem appointed to investigate a client’s alleged mental incapacity has the power to make legal decisions for the client before a judicial determination on her mental capacity.”

 

Call us for advice on guardianship and legal problems related to incapacity ……… 732-382-6070

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