[226 NJSuper Page 488] This written opinion supplements the court's oral decision. The issue presented by the motion and cross motion for summary judgment in this case is, whether an innocent purchaser of a stolen motor vehicle can recover, under the comprehensive coverage of his insurance policy, for loss of his vehicle, when it
is returned by the police to the rightful owner. The issue appears to be one of first impression in New Jersey.
The following facts are uncontroverted. Plaintiff purchased a motor vehicle in August 1985 from defendant Jorge Vega (hereinafter "Vega") for a cash consideration of at least $8,000.*fn1 Vega delivered to plaintiff a certificate of ownership, or title, which indicated that the registered owner was Janet Rosenberg of Fort Lee, NJ. When it was delivered, the reverse side of the title form contained a signature purporting to be that of the seller which read "Janet Rosenberg," and was dated August 27, 1985. The plaintiff's name and address were inserted in the buyer's portion. The plaintiff took this "title" to a local motor vehicle agency on August 26, 1985, paid the required fees and sales tax and obtained a certificate of ownership in his name. The discrepancy between the dates of sale and issue of the new title was apparently not noticed by the clerk in the motor vehicle agency. However, on August 27, 1985, the supervisor of the agency contacted the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) to investigate this transfer. The typing on the title form and validation stamp were suspicious. An investigation was initiated by the State Police. On August 28, 1985, the plaintiff added the subject vehicle to his existing automobile insurance policy issued by Allstate. The policy included comprehensive coverage for direct and accidental loss to the vehicle.
On November 16, 1985, the subject vehicle was involved in an automobile accident. The NJSP concluded its investigation on November 22, 1985. The investigation disclosed the following: (1) the subject motor vehicle had been stolen from Sansone Datsun of Avenel, N.J.; (2) the certificate of ownership or title form had been stolen from a New Jersey Motor Vehicle Agency, and (3) the Janet Rosenberg whose name, address and
signature appeared on the "title" had never owned the vehicle in question and denied any knowledge of plaintiff or Vega. Thereafter, the subject vehicle was returned to its rightful owner. The plaintiff filed a claim against defendant Allstate for property damage under the collision coverage of his automobile insurance policy. Subsequently, plaintiff filed the present suit for loss of the vehicle under the comprehensive coverage of the policy.
Plaintiff moves for summary judgment against defendant Allstate, and Allstate has filed a cross motion against the plaintiff. The policy's comprehensive coverage clause reads as follows:
Coverage For Damage to your Auto
We will pay for direct and accidental loss to your covered auto, including its equipment, minus any ...