On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Hudson County.
Morton I. Greenberg, R. S. Cohen and Gruccio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Cohen, R.s., J.A.D.
The issue presented by this case is whether an accepted award made in the statutory program of arbitration for auto negligence actions, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-24 et seq., has preclusive effect on subsequent claims among the same parties arising out of the accident. We hold that the arbitration award has no such preclusive effect.
Here are the facts. Yasir Matan was a passenger in a car driven by plaintiff Sadallah Taha when it was in a collision with a car driven by defendant Maryann DePalma. Matan sued both drivers for personal injury damages. Taha started a separate suit against DePalma for personal injury damages. Then, the
passenger's claim was submitted to arbitration as required by law. The arbitrator found that Taha's negligence was 75% responsible for the accident and DePalma's was 25% responsible. He awarded the passenger damages of $3000. None of the parties petitioned the court for a trial de novo or for modification or vacation of the award. Instead, a stipulation of dismissal of the passenger's suit was filed, signed by counsel; it was signed for Taha by counsel supplied by his insurance carrier. From the record before us, it is impossible to tell if Taha himself actually knew of the award, the decision to accept it or the stipulation of dismissal.
Later, Taha's claim against DePalma was presented for arbitration. The second arbitrator awarded no damages to Taha. Relying on the first award, he ruled as follows:
Previous arbitration award gave this plaintiff 75% negligence. He participated and is now barred by Collateral Estoppel.
For reasons which do not appear, the two suits were then consolidated. DePalma moved for summary judgment on the basis of collateral estoppel. Judge Dorothea Wefing denied the motion, ruling that preclusive effect did not attach to the first award. DePalma appealed, and we now affirm.
Since the rules of preclusion vary with the nature of the proceedings involved, a close look is necessary at the setting in which the first arbitration took place. It was a statutory proceeding required by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-24 et seq., which establishes a judicially managed system of mandatory but non-binding arbitration of some personal injury auto negligence claims. The declared purpose of the statute is:
to establish an informal system of settling tort claims arising out of automobile accidents in an expeditious, and least costly manner, and to ease the burdens and congestion of the State's courts. [ N.J.S.A. 39:6A-24]
Arbitration is required where the amount in controversy is $15,000 or less, and is permitted with consent of all parties in cases presenting larger claims. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-25.
An award need not be accepted by the parties. Any one of them may have a trial de novo simply by filing a timely request. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-31. ...