NJ Supremes’ Reversal of Jury Verdict Reminds Trial Courts of Gatekeeping Function

by: Joseph Grather
5 Jun 2020

Not surprised.  As a follow-up report on our blog here, which recounted an Appellate Division opinion affirming a jury verdict of $4.2 million in favor of property owner Anthony Gentile where he did not present appraisal/valuation testimony at trial after his property in central New Jersey was taken by Manalapan Township.  Guess the verdict was too good to be true, and appeared to shock the judicial conscience of the Justices.

The Supreme Court’s opinion is found here and is primarily a reminder to trial court judges that when confronted with a valuation theory that posits a highest and best use at variance from the existing legal zoning constraints, the trial court must exercise its gatekeeping function to determine whether sufficient evidence exists regarding the reasonable probability of obtaining any needed variance, before that evidence can be presented to a jury.  This practice has led to more and more “Rule 104” evidentiary hearings in eminent domain trials in recent years, thereby increasing the amount of litigation and the time spent before the courts but, to our knowledge, has not had an appreciable impact on the outcome of these matters.