In the matter of Willner v. Vertical Reality, the New Jersey Supreme Court set limits on a plaintiff’s ability to win sanctions under the Offer of Judgment Rule in cases of multiple defendants, even when the ultimate damages award is well beyond the original judgment. The Court overturned an award of sanctions in a product liability case where a jury ordered two defendants to pay plaintiff far beyond what his attorney had demanded in a pretrial offer of judgment. The Supreme Court said it would be unjust to hold a defendant in a multidefendant case to sanctions if that defendant’s share of the judgment is equal to or below the amount of the plaintiff’s offer.
The Court stated that it would be unfair to impose sanctions in a case where the only means for a party to avoid sanctions would be to pay a greater amount than the jury’s verdict against the party, without advanced notice of that consequence.
In the case being decided the plaintiff Willner was injured as an employee of a day camp while climbing a rock wall. The equipment holding the ropes in place broke leading to Willner’s serious fall where he sustained a broken ankle. Willner sued the builder of the rock wall and the manufacturer of the equipment used. Before trial the plaintiff’s attorney made a global offer of judgment of $125,000 which defendants rejected. The case was tried and the jury awarded Willner $358,000 in damages, far above the 120% threshold required for a judge to impose sanctions under R. 4:58. The trial court imposed sanctions of both counsel fees and costs in addition to pretrial interest. The manufacturer argued that it should not face sanctions since its liability was apportioned at 30% or about $107,400 which was less than the $125,000 offer for judgment. The Court agreed that such an outcome would be unjust and noted that a global offer of judgment in a multidefendant case is problematic.