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Guy v. Petty

Decided: November 9, 1993.

FATELIN GUY, LAUREL GUY, AN INFANT, AND TONYA GUY, AN INFANT, BY THEIR GUARDIAN AD LITEM, IVY GUY, AND IVY GUY, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
LAWRENCE G. PETTY, POOPA P. SHAH, AND PIYUSH S. SHAH, DEFENDANTS.



Mannion

Mannion

MANNION, J.S.C.

This automobile accident case comes to the court on cross-motions for summary judgment. The suit arose from a car accident that occurred in Edison Township on July 21, 1990, the facts of which are not relevant for purposes of these motions.

Defendants Poopa and Piyush Shah ("Defendants") filed their motion against the minor plaintiffs Laurel Guy ("Laurel") and Tonya Guy ("Tonya"), who were passengers in their mother's car. The Shahs' motion asserts that the two minor plaintiffs have failed to meet the verbal threshold pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8a and to the Supreme Court's opinion in Oswin v. Shaw, 129 N.J. 290, 609 A.2d 415 (1992).

The plaintiffs cross-moved for an order declaring N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8 unconstitutional on the grounds that it denies equal protection and the right to trial by jury to the "economically disadvantaged." The Attorney General's office was notified that the statute was being challenged on constitutional grounds, but it declined to participate in this motion.

The court will first address plaintiffs' constitutional arguments. Then, because the court rejects those arguments, the court will address Defendants' summary judgment motion.

I. The Verbal Threshold Statute Does Not Deny Any Constitutional Rights to Low-Income Insureds

In a nutshell, plaintiffs assert that they (and other similarly-situated low-income people) cannot afford to pay the higher premium for the "no-threshold" tort option, which gives auto accident claimants the unrestricted right to sue for noneconomic damages. Instead, they argue, they are forced financially to choose the "verbal threshold" tort option, which prohibits them from suing for anything other than major injuries. On the other hand, they argue, those with the financial means can afford to pay the higher premium for no-threshold, thus retaining the unrestricted right to sue. Therefore, plaintiffs argue that the verbal threshold statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the, equal protection guarantee embodied in the New Jersey Constitution.*fn1

Further, plaintiffs assert that the statute denies them the fundamental right to trial by jury guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution.*fn2 They contend that the statute impermissibly forced plaintiffs, unable to afford the higher no-threshold premium, "to unwillingly and involuntarily forfeit their right to trial by jury."

The court notes that plaintiffs' trial by jury argument implicitly encompasses an alleged denial of access to the courts. The court will treat the two together.

N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8 (the "verbal threshold statute" or the "statute") is one section of the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act (the "No-Fault Act"), which was first enacted in 1972 and subsequently amended several times. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35. The Act as a whole requires prompt payment of "personal injury protection" (PIP) expenses to automobile accident victims without regard to fault, and without having to await the outcome of protracted litigation. See Hoglin v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 144 N.J. Super. 475, 479-80, 366 A.2d 345 (App. Div. 1976). PIP payments include: medical expenses, lost wages, essential services, survivor benefits, and funeral expenses. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.

The tort exemption section, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8, gives the insured two choices for suing for noneconomic loss in the event of an auto-related injury. The "verbal threshold" option prohibits the insured from suing for pain and suffering, unless he or she has sustained a serious injury, i.e., one that falls within one of the nine enumerated categories. See N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8a. The "no-threshold" option gives the insured the unrestricted right to sue for any and all injuries arising out of the use of an automobile. See N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8b. The insured's selection of the no-threshold option will mean a substantially higher premium payment.

A. Constitutional Standards of Review

As an initial matter, the court notes that "there is a strong presumption that a statute is constitutional." WHYY, Inc. v. Glassboro, 50 N.J. 6, 13, 231 A.2d 608 (1967). Moreover, "to declare a statute unconstitutional is a judicial power to be delicately exercised." Id. Moreover, this power should be exercised rarely by a trial court, and only then when the statute is plainly at odds with the constitution. With that in mind, the court turns to the appropriate levels of constitutional review under the federal and state equal protection guarantees.

Federal equal protection analysis involves three tiers of review. First, if a statute regulates a "suspect class" or a "fundamental right," then the legislative classification is subject to strict scrutiny. To withstand strict scrutiny, the statute must further a compelling state interest, and there must be no less restrictive means of accomplishing that interest. Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 364-65; Brown v. City of Newark, 113 N.J. 565, 573, 552 A.2d 125 (1989). A "suspect class" is one "saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 365 (quoting San Antonio Indep. School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 28, 93 S. Ct. 1278, 1294, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16, 40 (1973)).

Second, if the statute regulates a "semi-suspect" class or substantially affects a fundamental right in an indirect manner, then the classification is examined under intermediate scrutiny, Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 365; Brown, supra, 113 N.J. at 573. Intermediate scrutiny requires the statute to be substantially related to an important government objective. Ibid.

If neither strict nor intermediate scrutiny applies, then the statute will be subjected to the rational basis test, which requires only that the classification be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 365.

New Jersey has rejected this three-tiered approach in reviewing equal protection claims under the State Constitution. Instead, the New Jersey Supreme Court applies a more flexible balancing test. Generally, the issue in any case is "whether there is an appropriate governmental interest suitably furthered by the differential treatment involved." Borough of Collingswood v. Ringgold, 66 N.J. 350, 370, 331 A.2d 262 (1975). In striking a balance, the Court has considered "the nature of the affected right, the extent to which the governmental restriction intrudes upon it, and the public need for the restriction." Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 368 (quoting Greenberg v. Kimmelman, 99 N.J. 552, 567, 494 A.2d 294 (1985)).

Although the tests under the federal and state constitutions will often yield the same results, "the New Jersey Constitution is not a mirror image of the United States Constitution, and there may be circumstances in which the State Constitution provides greater protections." Barone, supra, 107 N.J. at 368.

B. The Rational Basis Test Applies

The threshold issue under either constitution is whether the statute discriminates against either a "suspect class" or "fundamental right." In the present case, plaintiffs allege a combination of the two: that the verbal threshold statute denies a fundamental right (trial by jury/access to the courts) to a suspect class (low-income people). However, for the reasons stated below, the court is of the opinion that neither trial by jury nor access to the courts is implicated; nor are low-income people a suspect class. Therefore, the court will apply the lowest levels of constitutional scrutiny, the federal rational basis test, and its counterpart under New Jersey law, a less-exacting balancing test.

"In the civil context, the right to a jury trial turns on whether that right existed at common law when the New Jersey Constitution was adopted." State v. Anderson, 127 N.J. 191, 207, 603 A.2d 928 (1992) (quoting Weinisch v. Sawyer, 123 N.J. 333, 343, 587 A.2d 615 (1991)). The provision of Article I, paragraph 9 of the 1947 Constitution that "the right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate" means that a civil litigant may demand a jury trial if the same or highly analogous action entitled one to a jury trial when the people adopted their constitution. Anderson, supra, 127 N.J. at 207; see also Kenney v. Scientific, Inc., 213 N.J. Super. 372, 517 A.2d 484 (1986) (holding that toxic tort action for damages required jury trial).

The constitutional rights to jury trial and access to the courts, however, are not at all implicated when the Legislature restricts common law causes of action, such as the negligence claims involved here. This very issue was discussed by Judge Cohen, then sitting in Law Division, in Rybeck v. Rybeck, 141 N.J. Super. 481, 505-07, 358 A.2d 828 (Law Div. 1976).

Rybeck involved a challenge to the constitutionality of the entire No-Fault Act as originally enacted. The plaintiffs there argued, as do the plaintiffs here, that the Act unlawfully denied them access to the courts and trial by jury by diminishing their cause of action for negligently-caused injuries. Rybeck, supra, 141 N.J. Super. at 505. Judge Cohen rejected this argument for two reasons.

First, he held that "there is no vested right in the current general law," and that it is wrong to think that "the whole range of common law causes of action existing at the time of constitutional enactment are permanently guaranteed against diminution." Ibid. Rather, "the Legislature may properly abrogate or alter a common law right or remedy prospectively, even without furnishing a substitute." Id. at 506 (emphasis added) (citing) Magierowski v. Buckley, 39 N.J. Super. 534, 121 A.2d 749 (App. Div. 1956)).

Second, Judge Cohen reasoned that "one has a right to access to the courts only to prosecute claims cognizable there." Rybeck, supra, 141 N.J. ...


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