This is a motion for summary judgment by The Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund Board (fund). Plaintiff, Jerome Dickey, was injured while riding in a stolen car. The issue presented is whether plaintiff's plea of guilty to riding in a vehicle without the owner's permission pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-10b disqualifies him from receiving benefits from the fund. Plaintiff asserts that he merely pleaded guilty to get out of jail and that, at the time of the accident, he was unaware the vehicle had been stolen.
The facts are summarized from the pleadings, briefs and supporting documents. On April 2, 1989, Jeannette Cady reported the theft of her vehicle, a 1987 Buick. Later that day the vehicle was involved in a one-car accident. A witness
reported that the vehicle made a left turn at a high rate of speed, lost control and struck a tree. Plaintiff, Jerome Dickey, was removed from the front passenger seat and taken to the hospital for internal injuries. While at the scene, Newark police learned that the vehicle was the same one Cady had reported stolen. Officers proceeded to the hospital to arrest the occupants. At the hospital the driver, Robert Michaels, and the rear passenger, Harry Drakeford, refused medical treatment and left. Dickey, however, while being attended, was arrested and charged with participating in the theft of Cady's vehicle. On September 27, 1990, Dickey, Michaels and Drakeford were all indicted for receiving stolen property, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7, a third-degree offense. Dickey was released after the original arrest but rearrested following the indictment.
On April 1, 1991, Dickey filed a personal injury complaint against the owner and operator of the vehicle. In the complaint, Dickey alleged that at the time of the accident he was not covered by any personal injury policy or automobile insurance policy. He also alleged that Cady's vehicle was uninsured. On April 4, 1991, Dickey pleaded guilty to an amended indictment charging him with the unlawful taking of a means of conveyance, a petty disorderly persons offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-10(b). Following the plea, Dickey was released from custody. On April 11, 1991, he was given a 30-day jail sentence with credit for time spent.
According to N.J.S.A. 39:6-70(c), a person is disqualified from recovering any monies from the fund if at the time of the accident he was: (1) operating or riding in a motor vehicle which he had stolen or participated in stealing, or (2) operating or riding in a motor vehicle without the permission of the owner. Eligibility for benefits under the statute is assessed upon "application for payment of judgment." Plaintiff claims that summary judgment would be premature at this time because this statute applies to judgments and he is not now seeking payment on a judgment.
It is well settled that summary judgment may be entered as to any issue of liability before trial. R. 4:46-2; Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 110 A.2d 24 (1954). The existence of a statutory remedy after judgment does not prevent a party from having its ultimate liability determined before trial. Vonins, Inc. v. Raff, 101 N.J. Super. 172, 243 A.2d 836 (App.Div.1968); Unsatisfied Cl. & Judg. Fd. Bd. v. Concord Ins., 110 N.J. Super. 191, 264 A.2d 757 (Law.Div.1970); See also R. 4:42-3. Certainly the fund should not be obligated to defend a claim only to find out later that it had no responsibility to do so in the first place. As the court stated in Concord Ins., supra:
The more desirable and efficient practice would be to allow the fund to have its ultimate liability determined before the actual trial. This would avoid improper control, unnecessary delay and useless litigation . . . . When a claim is made which the fund feels is without merit, for whatever reason, it should not be rendered powerless to correct the situation until after a judgment is entered against it. [110 N.J. Super. at 199, 264 A.2d 757]
There is no doubt that summary judgment is an appropriate remedy where there is no factual dispute and all that remains is a question of law. See Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, supra.; Monturi v. Englewood Hosp., 246 N.J. Super. 547, 588 A.2d 408 (App.Div.1991); Swartz v. Becker, 246 N.J. Super. 406, 587 A.2d 1295 (App.Div.1991); Hammond v. Doan, 127 N.J. Super. 67, 316 A.2d 68 (Law Div.1974). In Doan the court concluded that "[a] motion for summary judgment appears to be the most fair-minded and economical method for a preliminary adjudication" of a claimant's eligibility for no-fault insurance benefits. Id. at 73, 316 A.2d ...