The simple answer is yes. When you are injured in an accident, your right to bring a personal injury claim in New Jersey is governed by various laws. The source of the controlling law can come from different sources. Most people are familiar with statutes that are implemented by the State Legislature and regulatory provisions that are established by the various State agencies. However, a less well known but no less important source of law controlling personal injury claims is the decisions that are made by the courts. Even when there are claims that have specific statutes establishing or governing the claim, for example product liability claims or claims arising out of dog bites, the courts have a significant role in defining the parameters of the statutory law and its application to particular facts or circumstances.
The law that is developed by the courts is generally referred to as the “common law” or “case law” and is set forth in “opinions” that are rendered by the courts in the particular cases that are before them. Depending on what level of court renders the decision determines its impact on future cases. The highest court in New Jersey is the New Jersey Supreme Court followed by the Superior Court which is made up of courts of the Appellate Division and then the trial courts. Opinions rendered by the Supreme Court are controlling on all lower courts in New Jersey. That means that the lower courts have to follow the rule of law set forth by the Supreme Court whether or not they agree with the rule unless the facts or circumstances of a particular matter are distinguishable from the opinion. Opinions rendered by the Appellate Division can be published or unpublished. Published opinions must be followed by the trial courts similar to the manner in which opinions of the Supreme Court must be followed by all lower courts. They are not, however, controlling other courts of the Appellate Division. One court from the Appellate Division may disagree with a rule of law set forth by another appellate court or may find the ruling to be persuasive and follow the ruling. Unpublished opinions are not controlling on any court and may only be considered as persuasive authority. Finally, the opinions of trial courts are not binding on any other court but may also be considered as persuasive authority.
The common law can be a trap for the unwary because the law is not always black and white. While a decision of the Supreme Court is binding, there may be circumstances in a particular case that can be used to differentiate the ruling such that it does not apply to that case. There are also many issues that have not been addressed by the Supreme Court and different panels of the Appellate Division have decided the same issue differently. The law is also always changing and being modified or applied to new circumstances. That is why it is best to hire an attorney to represent you in bringing a claim for personal injuries.