On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.
Pressler, Gaulkin and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gaulkin, J.A.D.
[218 NJSuper Page 327] Plaintiff Linda Ross (Ross) brought this action to recover damages for personal injuries she suffered as a passenger in a bus owned and operated by defendant New Jersey Transit Bus Operations, Inc. (Transit)*fn1 which was struck by a stolen car driven by defendant Ronald Longson, Jr. At an arbitration hearing conducted pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-25 et seq., the arbitrator determined that the accident was caused solely by Longson's negligence and awarded Ross the sum of $5555.
Ross moved in the Law Division to confirm the award against Longson and, because Longson was concededly uninsured, to require that the award be paid by Transit. Judgment was entered against Longson, but the motion to compel Transit to pay was denied. Ross appeals from the denial of that motion.
The sole question presented by the appeal is whether Transit, as a public entity, is obligated to provide uninsured motorist (UM) coverage to its injured passengers. The issue has been addressed in only one reported decision, Transport of New Jersey v. Matos, 202 N.J. Super. 571 (Law Div.1985), which held that Transit was not so obligated.*fn2 We reach the contrary conclusion.
The framework of the dispute can be briefly stated. N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1 mandates that "[e]very owner or registered owner of a motor vehicle registered or principally garaged in this State shall maintain motor vehicle liability insurance coverage. . . ." N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.la in turn provides that every motor vehicle liability policy shall include coverage "for payment of all or part of the sums which the insured . . . shall be legally entitled to recover as damages from the operator or owner of an uninsured motor vehicle. . . ." An owner of more than 25 motor vehicles may qualify as a self-insurer (N.J.S.A. 39:6-52(a), in which event his certificate of self-insurance is deemed an insurance policy which incorporates the UM coverage required of all motor vehicle insurance policies by N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1. Transport of New Jersey v. Watler, 79 N.J. 400, 401 (1979). See also Mortimer v. Peterkin, 170 N.J. Super. 598 (App.Div.1979); Crocker v. Transport of New Jersey, 169 N.J. Super. 498
(Law Div.1979).*fn3 Similarly, a municipality is deemed to provide UM coverage if it establishes an insurance fund under N.J.S.A. 40A:10-6b, "[t]o insure against liability resulting from the use or operation of motor vehicles, equipment or apparatus owned by or controlled by it. . . ." Christy v. City of Newark, 102 N.J. 598, 607-608 (1986). The statutory obligation to provide UM coverage in insurance policies thus has been judicially declared to extend to private self-insurers and to municipalities which have established an insurance fund. The question here is whether that obligation extends as well to Transit, a self-insured public entity without any statutory insurance fund.*fn4
The reasoning of the Supreme Court in Christy requires the conclusion that Transit must afford UM coverage to its passengers. In Christy, the court rejected Newark's contention that UM coverage could only be predicated on an insurance policy or a certificate of self-insurance. It found the various statutory provisions to establish a public policy that "all motor vehicles registered in New Jersey, including those owned by self-insurers, carry UM coverage as part of liability insurance." 102 N.J. at 607 (quoting Transport of New Jersey v. Watler, 161 N.J. Super. 453, 463 (App.Div.1978), aff'd as modified, 79 N.J. 400 (1979)). That policy "does not depend for its vitality on a piece of paper, either an insurance policy as such or a certificate of self-insurance. . . ." 102 N.J. at 607. The statutory fund created by Newark constituted a "statutory contract" which obligated the municipality "to furnish the UM coverage mandated
under N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1, to the extent of at least the statutory minimum of $15,000." Id. at 608. The court concluded that
So strong is the public policy favoring UM coverage that in the absence of an unmistakable legislative declaration to the contrary, we are certain that the foregoing principle applies to any legislatively-authorized self-insurance fund, including one ...