On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 287 N.J. Super. 370 (1996).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Coleman join in Justice STEIN's opinion. Chief Justice Poritz did not participate.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Louis Scott Whitaker and Laura Whitaker v. Ronald A. DeVilla and Romeo A. DeVilla, et. al., 147 N.J. 341, 687 A.2d 738,
Argued November 18, 1996 -- Decided February 3, 1997
Stein, J., writing for a majority Court.
In this appeal, the Court addresses the proper interpretation and constitutionality of New Jersey's "deemer statute" (N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4), which deems New Jersey's "verbal threshold" to apply to the policies of out-of-state residents using their automobiles in New Jersey if their insurers are authorized to do business in New Jersey. Assuming that the deemer statute is constitutional and applies to the Whitakers' claim, a secondary issue is whether the injuries sustained by Louis Whitaker (Whitaker) satisfy the verbal threshold, which allows automobile accident tort recovery only for bodily injury of a type or degree within one of the nine defined categories set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-8a.
On June 29, 1992, Louis and Laura Whitaker's automobile was struck in the rear by a vehicle driven by Ronald DeVilla (DeVilla). The accident occurred in Montgomery Township, New Jersey. The Whitakers, both Pennsylvania residents, were insured under a Pennsylvania automobile insurance policy issued by Prudential Property and Casualty Insurance Company, an insurer authorized to do business in New Jersey. The Whitakers had elected the full tort option on their automobile insurance policy.
As a result of the accident, Whitaker sustained soft tissue injuries to his cervical, dorsal and lumbar regions, causing him to miss several hours of work and requiring him to undergo medical treatment over a seventeen-month period. Whitaker's treating chiropractor determined that Whitaker's cervical range of motion was restricted and that he experienced muscle spasms in the cervical, dorsal, and lumbar regions. Although he described Whitaker's condition as permanent, he observed that his long-term prognosis was good with proper care.
When Whitaker was deposed in August 1994, he acknowledged that he was able to participate in all of the activities in which he had participated prior to the accident, but noted that he experienced pain and discomfort while engaging in specific activities. Following the deposition, DeVilla filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that Whitaker had not adequately supported a claim for relief under the verbal threshold, which applied to Whitaker under the deemer statute.
In opposition to the motion for summary judgment, Whitaker relied on the report of his treating chiropractor, as well as a report from his experts, indicating that Whitaker continued to experience muscle spasms in his neck and back and that he displayed physical limitations such as decreased flexion and extension. The report concluded that the prognosis for improvement was limited in that Whitaker's injuries were "precursors to progressive traumatic arthritis in the areas injured."
The trial court granted DeVilla's motion for summary judgment, determining that the deemer statute applied to Whitaker's suit and upholding the statute's constitutionality. The trial court further concluded that Whitaker had not adequately supported a claim for relief under the verbal threshold, noting that the experts' findings that Whitaker had sustained permanent injuries were inadequately supported by the record.
The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court's Conclusion that Whitaker had failed to satisfy the verbal threshold, but, nevertheless, reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment, concluding that the language of the deemer statute was "inadvertently overbroad and was not intended to restrict the rights of persons such as the present plaintiffs," who had paid for full tort coverage.
The Supreme Court granted the State's and DeVilla's petitions for certification, and the Whitakers' cross-petition challenging both the constitutionality of the deemer statute and the lower court's Conclusion that Whitaker's injuries did not satisfy the verbal threshold.
HELD: The deemer statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States or the New Jersey Constitutions; the Legislature expressly intended the deemer statute to impose the verbal threshold on all out-of-state insureds that sustain automobile accident injuries in New Jersey and whose policies were issued by insurers authorized to transact business in New Jersey; although the finding of muscle spasms by Whitaker's medical experts may constitute an objective medical finding, the Conclusion of both lower courts that the reports do not offer adequate evidence to overcome the verbal threshold will not be disturbed.
1. The deemer statute assures that, if a vehicle is operated in New Jersey, the policy issued by an insurer authorized to transact business in New Jersey will provide the minimum liability coverage, uninsured motorist coverage, and personal injury protection coverage that the insurer would be obligated to provide to a New Jersey resident. (pp. 7-8)
2. Prior to the Appellate Division decision under review, courts confronted with challenges to the deemer statute have applied it literally and upheld its constitutionality. (pp. 10-18)
3. The legislative decision to impose the verbal threshold only on the class of non-resident insureds, inrecognition of the substantial benefits conferred on those insureds by the deemer statute, constitutes a thoroughly rational and intelligible legislative classification. (pp. 18-21)
4. Because the deemer statute's application to Whitaker does not implicate any fundamental constitutional right or any suspect or quasi-suspect classification, Whitaker's constitutional challenge is evaluated on the basis of the third tier of equal protection analysis, rational basis review. (pp. 21-22)
5. If a statutory distinction has some reasonable basis, a State does not violate the Equal Protection Clause merely because the classifications made by its laws are imperfect. (pp. 22-23)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.
JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ did not participate.
The opinion of the Court was ...