On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Handler, Wilentz, Clifford, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein
The opinion of the court was delivered by
The Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund is a State-administered fund created to provide compensation for the injured victims of automobile accidents caused by persons who are not financially responsible. Under the statutory scheme governing the Fund, a notice of intention to make a claim must be filed within ninety days after the automobile accident or within fifteen days after a disclaimer of insurance coverage on the person who caused the accident. In this case, plaintiffs were the victims in an automobile accident caused by a party who they believed was insured. That belief later turned out to be mistaken. As a result, when plaintiffs filed claims against the Fund, the statutory time periods had expired. The Fund rejected the claims as untimely.
The basic issue on appeal is whether the statutory provisions governing the time within which claims must be filed with the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund should be tolled until the claimant reasonably discovers that the party responsible for the accident is not insured.
On August 30, 1988, plaintiffs, Stanley Brookins and Arvay Little, were injured when the car in which they were passengers struck a light post. Dawn Murray, the car's owner, was driving, and no other vehicle was involved. Apparently, at the time of the accident, Murray told plaintiffs and the police that she was insured by Allstate Insurance Company. The police report indicated Allstate as Murray's insurer and referred specifically to an insurance-policy number.
Brookins and Little filed complaints against Murray on December 15, 1988. Their counsel sent a copy of Brookins's summons and complaint to Allstate on February 6, 1989, and a copy of Little's on April 3, 1989. Allstate sent Murray a letter dated April 28, 1989, disclaiming coverage. The letter stated that Allstate had cancelled Murray's policy on July 26, 1988, five weeks before the accident, for nonpayment of premiums. Allstate sent copies of that termination letter to Brookins, Little, and their counsel. Counsel received the letter on May 3, 1989.
On May 30, 1989, nine months after the accident and twenty-seven days after receipt of Allstate's no-coverage letter, Brookins's and Little's counsel filed Notices of Intention to Make Claim on the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (UCJF or Fund). As indicated before, the statute governing the Fund requires the filing of such notice within either ninety days after the accident or fifteen days after receipt of an insurer's disclaimer of coverage. N.J.S.A. 39:6-65. (The notices were dated May 24, 1989, but the cover letter was dated May 30, 1989.) On July 24, 1989, the Fund notified counsel that the matter was on "ineligible status" because the notices had not been filed within ninety days of the accident.
Brookins and Little filed amended complaints on August 18, 1989, adding as an additional defendant Glenn R. Paulsen, Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles, and second amended complaints on September 28, 1989, substituting Kenneth D. Merin, Commissioner of Insurance, for Paulsen. On February 1, 1990, Brookins and Little filed a new complaint, this time against Murray, Merin, and Karl Weidel, Executive Director of the UCJF. On February 11, 1990, a trial court ordered consolidation of Brookins's and Little's actions, and on April 12, 1990, the court dismissed the matter with regard to Merin.
Even before that dismissal, Brookins and Little filed a new complaint against defendants. All defendants except Murray answered, raising the defense of late notice to the Fund. Defendants Merin and Weidel moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motions. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment in an unreported per curiam opinion. We granted plaintiffs' petition for certification, 130 N.J. 8 (1992).
The Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund was established by statute in 1952, L. 1952, c. 174; N.J.S.A. 39:6-60 to -91, "to provide a measure of relief for persons who sustain losses or injury inflicted by financially irresponsible or unidentified owners or operators of motor vehicles, where such persons would otherwise be remediless." Corrigan v. Gassert, 27 N.J. 227, 233 (1958) (citing Dixon v. Gassert, 26 N.J. 1 (1958)). The Legislature was attempting to "ameliorate the inJustice to the victims resulting from a basic shortcoming of the tort liability system: the futility or impossibility of prosecuting a civil damage claim against a financially irresponsible or even unknown ...