On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber, Handler and Pollock. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Pashman, J., concurring. Pashman, J., concurring in the result.
As in another case decided today, Gambino v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 86 N.J. 100 (1981), we are confronted with the problem of harmonizing the statutory language of the no-fault insurance enactment with legislative intent. In this case we are called upon to determine who is entitled to collect PIP survivor benefits as a result of the death of Elaine Skolny, the insured.
Elaine Skolny and Edward McGrory were married August 13, 1974. Nine months later the couple separated, no children having been born. Once the eighteen month period of separation required for a no-fault divorce had passed, Skolny filed for a divorce. A default was entered on April 12, 1977 when McGrory failed to answer the complaint. Before the trial court could finally adjudicate the divorce, however, Skolny died in an automobile accident on June 4, 1977. Thus, at the time of the accident, Skolny and McGrory remained legally married.
The deceased had purchased a PIP insurance policy in July 1976 from the Allstate Insurance Company. The policy included benefits purchased pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-10, in addition to those minimally required by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.*fn1
In December 1977 Allstate filed an interpleader action, requesting that the court decide whether Edward McGrory, the decedent's husband, or the Estate of Elaine Skolny should receive those benefits payable as a result of Skolny's death. The trial judge ruled that the Estate was entitled to receive the income continuation, death, and funeral benefits provided for by the policy and our statutes and regulations. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed as to the income continuation and death benefits, there being no dispute that the funeral benefits were properly payable to the Estate. See N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4(e). This Court granted the Estate's petition for certification. 84 N.J. 376.
The operative provision of the PIP statute, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4(d), commands that upon the death of an income producer in an automobile accident, the surviving spouse shall receive the maximum amount of benefits that the deceased would have received had death not occurred. If there is no spouse (and no surviving children), the Estate of the income producer receives the recompense.*fn2 The crucial inquiry here is the definition of "surviving spouse" as used in the no-fault enactment.
As we have stated in Gambino v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., supra, 86 N.J. at 107, "in interpreting the (PIP) statute . . . the statutory language must be read, whenever possible, to promote prompt payment to all injured persons for all of their losses. Consequently, approaches which minimize resort to the judicial
process, or at least do not increase reliance upon the judiciary, are ...