Statute of Limitations

We thought we understood statutes of limitations and choice-of-law rules in New Jersey.  Until yesterday.  That was when we read the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in McCarrell v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., No. 076524, 2017 WL 344449 (N.J. Jan. 24, 2017), which unhinged that state’s statute of limitations and choice-of-law jurisprudence from its own precedent and placed statutes of limitations in a special class without much explanation.  And the court did all of this for the stated purpose of preserving plaintiffs’ claims and not “discriminating” against an out-of-state plaintiff’s ability to sue a New Jersey company in New Jersey, after the suit would be barred in the plaintiff’s home state.

How did we get here? Well, this is a New Jersey Accutane case, which tells you that it was contentious, as most things seem to be in that multi-county proceeding.  Other than that, the facts in McCarrell are fairly typical—an out-of-state plaintiff (in this case a fellow from Alabama) who was prescribed a drug in his home state, used the drug in his home state, experienced alleged complications in his home state, and received medical treatment in his home state sued the drug’s manufacturer where the company is incorporated—in this case, New Jersey. McCarrell, at *3.

The rub in McCarrell was that the plaintiff’s claim was time barred under Alabama’s statute of limitations, but not under New Jersey’s statute of limitations, which includes a discovery rule.  The choice of law therefore determined the outcome, which led the parties to contest the issue hotly in the trial court, the intermediate appellate court, and eventually the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Each court applied different rules, which is why this case is so interesting and why the Supreme Court’s opinion is so odd. We have long understood that the choice of forum does not determine the applicable substantive law.  Sure, the forum’s procedural law applies, but the substantive law is determined by applying the forum state’s choice-of-law rules.


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