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Chalef v. Ryerson

Decided: October 21, 1994.

BARBARA CHALEF, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN L. RYERSON, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Before Judges Michels, Keefe and Humphreys.

Michels

The opinion of the court was delivered by MICHELS, P.J.A.D.

Plaintiff Barbara Chalef appeals from a summary judgment of the Law Division that dismissed her personal injury tort action against defendant John L. Ryerson to recover non-economic losses she sustained as a result of an automobile accident. More precisely, plaintiff appeals from two orders. The trial court's first order granted defendant's motion for summary judgment when it found that plaintiff's automobile was principally garaged in New Jersey on the date of the accident, thereby subjecting her to the verbal threshold requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8(a) of the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act codified under N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 et seq. (commonly referred to as our No-Fault Law). The second order granted summary judgment in favor of defendant and dismissed plaintiff's action on the ground that she failed to satisfy the verbal threshold requirements of the no-fault law.

I.

The initial question presented is whether, under our system of compulsory automobile insurance, plaintiff's automobile was "principally garaged" pursuant to our No-Fault Law at the time of the accident. We are satisfied from our review of the record and the arguments presented that the trial court properly held that plaintiff's automobile was principally garaged in New Jersey, thereby subjecting her to the verbal threshold requirements of our No-Fault Law.

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3 of our No-Fault Law, "every owner or registered owner of an automobile registered or principally garaged in this State shall maintain automobile liability insurance coverage, under provisions approved by the Commissioner of Insurance." (Emphasis added). See also N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1 and N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2. In addition, every automobile liability insurance policy insuring an automobile in this state must provide personal injury protection (PIP) coverage, as set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4. And, "any person who, at the time of an automobile accident resulting in injuries to that person, is required but fails to maintain" the PIP coverage mandated by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4 is automatically subjected to the verbal threshold tort option specified in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8(a). See also N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5.

The Supreme Court, in Sotomayor v. Vasquez, 109 N.J. 258, 261, 536 A.2d 746 (1988), elaborated on the purposes behind our system of compulsory automobile insurance providing basic PIP coverage as follows:

Compulsory automobile insurance providing basic PIP benefits for the occupants of each car and the members of each car owner's family is designed to provide quick and easy reimbursement for the basic personal costs most people incur when they are involved in an automobile accident. Usually, the benefits payable under PIP law are the familiar common-law special damages for "bodily injury," such as medical expenses and lost income. PIP's strategic goal is to counter, by early payment of bills without regard to a driver's fault, the increasing spiral of automobile negligence cases that were thought to have been a major cause of rising auto insurance premiums in New Jersey, as well as much of the congestion in the court system.

Expressed symbolically, the basic scheme of PIP is that each car in personal use should take care of its passengers and that each family car should take care of that family.

The term "principally garaged," as used in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3, is not defined by statute. Therefore, it should be given its ordinary and well understood meaning, consistent with the Legislature's intent in enacting our current system of compulsory automobile insurance providing basic PIP coverage. See State v. Arslanouk, 167 N.J. Super. 387, 393, 400 A.2d 1206 (App. Div. 1979). We construe the term "principally garaged" to mean the physical location where an automobile is primarily or chiefly kept or where it is kept most of the time. See Frasca v. United States, 702 F. Supp. 715, 718 (C.D.Ill. 1989).

Analyzed in this light, the trial court correctly concluded that plaintiff's vehicle was principally garaged in New Jersey on August 23, 1991. The facts lending to this determination were essentially uncontroverted. Plaintiff had lived exclusively in Middletown, New Jersey for approximately four months prior to the accident. Plaintiff first began working as a systems engineer at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, in April 1990, approximately one year and four months prior to the accident. While plaintiff was temporarily relocated between New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Virginia, from April 1990 until April 1991, she apparently continued to maintain her address in Middletown. Furthermore, while plaintiff claims that she intended to return to Maryland and had several job interviews there, she still resided in New Jersey.

Following the August 23, 1991 accident and during her recuperation, plaintiff continued to reside in Middletown, New Jersey. Upon her return to work in November 1991, plaintiff remained in New Jersey and began permanently working at AT&T in Holmdel. Sometime thereafter, plaintiff changed her legal residency and motor vehicle licensure from Maryland to New Jersey. In July 1992, plaintiff moved from Middletown to Lincroft, New Jersey, where she presently resides.

Plaintiff argues that her intent should be the controlling factor in determining whether her automobile was principally garaged within New Jersey for purposes of our No-Fault Law. Specifically, she claims that she was only on temporary assignment in New Jersey at the time of the accident and that she did not intend to remain in New Jersey. Therefore, she contends that her automobile should not be considered as having been principally garaged within New Jersey. We disagree. While intent may be relevant for determining where an automobile is principally garaged in some circumstances, such as where a person is merely visiting for a short period of time, (see, for example, State v. Arslanouk, supra), the physical location where the automobile is primarily kept is the pivotal factor in determining where the automobile is principally garaged. Here, plaintiff lived and worked in New Jersey for four consecutive months prior to and at the time of the accident. Plaintiff maintained her address in New Jersey even while on temporary assignment out of New Jersey. In addition, plaintiff remained in New Jersey following the accident, and works and resides in New Jersey today. These factors clearly rebut plaintiff's claim that her automobile was not "principally garaged" in New Jersey at the time of the accident. As the trial court so appropriately observed: "It is not the intention of the owner or the registered owner of the automobile as to where it should be principally garaged, it's a physical fact as to where it is principally garaged."

Consequently, the trial court properly held that plaintiff's automobile was "principally garaged" in New Jersey at the time of the accident, and that, therefore, plaintiff was subject to the verbal threshold requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8(a).

II.

On appeal, plaintiff contends for the first time that the law of Maryland should apply since that was the place of her insurance contract. Since plaintiff did not raise this issue in the trial court, we decline to consider it now on appeal. "It is a well-settled principle that our appellate courts will decline to consider questions or issues not properly presented to the trial court when an opportunity for such a presentation is available 'unless the questions so raised on appeal go to the jurisdiction of the trial court or concern matters of great public interest.'" Skripek v. Bergamo, 200 N.J. Super. 620, 629, 491 A.2d 1336 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 102 N.J. 303 (1985) (quoting Nieder v. Royal Indemnity Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234, 300 A.2d 142 (1973)); see also State v. Bogus, 223 N.J. Super. 409, 419, 538 A.2d 1278 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 111 N.J. 567 (1988).

Even if we ignored this sound principle of appellate review and considered the merits of plaintiff's contention, the interests of New Jersey in this case dictate that its laws apply. In Buzzone v. Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., 23 N.J. 447, 129 A.2d 561 (1957), the Supreme Court ruled that "the rights and liabilities of the insurer under the policy and the statutory impact thereon are to be determined by the law of the state where the contract was made." Id. at 452. Then, in State Farm, etc., Ins. Co. v. Simmons Estate, 84 N.J. 28, 36, 417 A.2d 488 (1980), the Court refined this rule, commenting that "cases in this jurisdiction subsequent to Buzzone have not mechanically or inflexibly applied the lex loci contractus rule." On the contrary, the Court stated:

Our courts have generally acknowledged, in the selection of state law, the relevance of respective state interests in the particular resolution of the controversy measured by several factors including the connection of the parties to the respective states, the nature of pertinent events that have transpired within each state, and the ...


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