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American Hardware Mutual Insurance Co. v. Bradley

Decided: September 26, 1977.


Allcorn, Morgan and Horn. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morgan, J.A.D.


[153 NJSuper Page 74] Must a policy of automobile liability insurance issued in New York to a New York resident covering a motor vehicle registered and garaged in that state afford coverage to the level of the New Jersey statutory minimum when an accident injuring New Jersey residents occurs in this State? The trial judge answered that question in the affirmative by reforming the New York policy containing limits of $10,000 per person and $20,000 per accident in compliance with New York requirements*fn1 to provide coverage in the amount of $15,000 per person and $30,000 per accident as demanded by New Jersey law. The challenged trial court action was based upon the perceived New Jersey public policy of guaranteeing to its residents coverage to the level of the statutory minimum and upon provisions contained in the policy itself from which the trial judge discerned an intent on the part of the carrier to underwrite expanded coverage whenever the laws of another state in which the insured vehicle caused injury so demanded. We disagree and reverse.

The factual context of the controversy is free from dispute. A New Jersey accident which occurred on January 26, 1974, negligently caused by a New York resident driving a vehicle registered and garaged in New York, resulted in the death of one New Jersey resident and the injury of two others. Plaintiff insurance carrier, American Hardware Mutual Insurance Company, had issued to its insured, coplaintiff Robert Young, a policy of automobile liability insurance with coverage limited to the amount of the New York statutory minimum in effect at the time, $10,000 per person and $20,000 per accident. Perceiving that the damages sustained by the victims of the accident exceeded the limits of its policy, American instituted an interpleader action tendering the full policy in payment of all claims and apparently seeking a court-ordered allocation of the available monies. Defendants, the victims of the accident, countered with a motion seeking to increase the level of coverage from the $10,000/$20,000 limits contained in the policy to the higher statutory minimum required by New Jersey law. The order granting this relief is here under challenge.

Unlike the trial judge, we are unable to locate any provision in the policy evidencing the carrier's intention to afford greater or lesser coverage in accordance with the laws of another state where an accident caused by its insured occurred. Paragraph 9 of the policy,*fn2 relied upon by

the trial judge, contemplates increased limits of coverage in compliance with the laws of a sister state only when the policy is certified as proof of financial responsibility in that other state. No party even suggests that the policy in question was "certified as proof of financial responsibility for the future" under New Jersey financial responsibility laws, or that the insured had, by his conduct, rendered himself subject to such a demand. The challenged trial court order simply excised from this provision the express condition to the carrier's agreement to underwrite losses to the greater limit required by the laws of a sister state wherein an accident occurred. This it could not do.

Nor does paragraph 25 of the policy provide authority for the trial court order. Paragraph 25 reads as follows:

Terms of this policy which are in conflict with the statutes of the State wherein this policy is issued are hereby amended to conform to such statutes.

This provision merely guarantees that the issued policy will conform to the laws of the state where issued. Since it is conceded by all that the policy conforms in all material respects to the law obtaining in New York on the date of its issuance, the purposes of this provision have been achieved and it bears no relevance to the problem presented. Neither paragraph 25 nor any other provision of the policy requires policy compliance with the laws of any other state where the insured vehicle may have caused an accident.

As to the perceived public policy of New Jersey of guaranteeing to its residents available insurance in the minimum specified by statute even from policies issued in other states to nonresident drivers of cars registered and garaged elsewhere, evidence of such public policy, if it exists, would have to be found outside all applicable statutory provision and directly contrary to existing decisional law. Hence, the mandate for automobile liability insurance, at least to the minimum amounts of coverage specified by statute, by its

express terms, applies only to "Every owner or registered owner of a motor vehicle registered or principally garaged in this State * * *." N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1 and N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3. The public policy evident from these provisions limits the guarantee to injured persons of available coverage in the statutory minimum only with respect to resident, not nonresident, drivers. Since New Jersey law does not compel any level of insurance coverage on nonresident drivers operating vehicles registered and garaged elsewhere, there can be no basis for reforming a policy covering such a nonresident to comply with this non-existent requirement.

Decisional law, too, fails to evidence a public policy requiring that insurance policies issued in sister states covering vehicles registered and garaged in the state of issuance carry New Jersey statutory limits of coverage with respect to vehicles driven within this State. Cirelli v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co. , 133 N.J. Super. 492 (Law Div. 1975), mod. on other grounds, 72 N.J. 380 (1977), held, in substance, that the scope of coverage afforded by an automobile liability policy of insurance is to be determined by the law of the state in which the policy was issued. The policy in Cirelli was issued in New Jersey. The carrier, however, sought the benefit of a New York statutory limit on the recoverable amount of medical expenses in a no-fault context not available in New Jersey. It contended that the New York limit was applicable simply because the accident occurred there. The trial court held that contention to be without merit, and although the issue was abandoned on the appeal, the Supreme Court nonetheless noted that it fully concurred with the trial judge's determination of ...

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