Parties involved in lawsuits have a fundamental right to control the direction of that lawsuit, subject only to the strictest procedural safeguards in cases of alleged mental incapacity. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently reaffirmed its commitment to upholding this form of autonomy in a recent case, reversing both the trial and appellate courts and noting that such a right is protected by state laws and even the State Constitution.
In that case, the plaintiff, S.T., was a former chemical engineer who refused to accept a settlement in her personal injury case. This caused her attorney to request a guardian ad litem be appointed by the court, which eventually led to S.T. being forced to accept the settlement. As the Supreme Court ruled, however, no guardian could be appointed with the power to accept a settlement or make other litigation decisions, on the plaintiff’s behalf without a judicial hearing to first determine that the plaintiff is mentally incapacitated.
In 2008, S.T. was walking out of her place of work when a metal plate above the door fell and struck her on the head. She was treated the next day for a concussion and the following year was declared permanently disabled and awarded social security disability benefits. She was also declared to have suffered cognitive, anxiety, and depressive disorders, which were chronic and permanent in nature. As a result, S.T. brought a lawsuit alleging negligence and products liability against several defendants. After more than two years of discovery, the defendants offered S.T. a settlement of $475,000, which she refused, against the advice of her attorney.
Fearing that S.T. was suffering from diminished capacity and not able to make informed decisions about her case, her attorney, unbeknownst to her, requested that the court appoint a guardian ad litem to represent S.T. in the settlement matter. S.T. was examined by a doctor as the court considered the request, and based on the results, the court granted the request stating that it found “good cause” to appoint a guardian ad litem. The Guardian then interviewed S.T. several times and recommended to the court that the settlement decision not be made by S.T. The court empowered the Guardian to make that decision himself. By this point the settlement offer had been increased to $625,000, which the Guardian accepted on S.T.’s behalf, and against her wishes.
In reviewing the case, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that parties to a lawsuit have the ultimate discretion to make decisions about their case, even if those decisions are unwise. Lawyers are bound to respect this right by New Jersey’s Rules of Professional Conduct. In the case of alleged mental incapacitation, as here, courts and lawyers need to “rigorously adhere to procedural protections set forth in our rules of the court, statutes, and case law.” Where a party requests that a guardian ad litem be appointed based on alleged mental incapacitation (or where the court decided to appoint one on its own accord), the court may do so per rule 4:26-2(b). The court should clearly define the guardian ad litem’s duties, and the guardian should investigate the party’s mental capacity and recommend whether the court should hold a judicial hearing to determine mental capacity.
Courts are not to take this recommendation at face value, however, as happened here. Rather, if the recommendation calls for it, courts should schedule a judicial hearing to determine mental capacity according to rule 4:86. During that trial, the court should make its own findings of fact and the party that is alleged to be mentally incompetent should be represented by independent counsel. These procedural safeguards, the Supreme Court explained, ensure that the party’s autonomy to control her lawsuit is protected by due process.
Unfortunately, in S.T.’s case, this did not happen. Instead, the court declared S.T. incapable of deciding matters of her case based on the guardian ad litem’s recommendations, not based on its own judicial hearing. As such, the court did not have the authority to force S.T. to accept the settlement offer.
If you have questions or concerns about guardianships, guardian ad litem proceedings, or have questions about a party’s right to control his/her lawsuit in general, feel free to contact Ward, Shindle & Hall.