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Scheckel v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

November 13, 1998


Before Judges Eichen and Coburn.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam

[9]    Argued telephonically October 15, 1998

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

In this declaratory judgment action for uninsured motorist (UM) coverage, plaintiff William Scheckel appeals from a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm) dismissing plaintiff's complaint. We reverse.

Plaintiff was involved in an accident with an unidentified vehicle on Wednesday, August 21, 1991. State Farm denied uninsured motorist coverage on the ground that plaintiff failed to give timely notice of the accident as required under his mother's automobile liability policy. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to compel State Farm to pay damages or arbitrate his entitlement to damages under the policy. State Farm filed an answer and affirmative defenses, alleging, among other defenses, that "plaintiff failed to report the alleged accident to the police" and that he had "breached the terms and conditions of the policy of insurance." Both parties demanded a trial by jury. Thereafter, at a settlement conference, the motion Judge directed State Farm to file a motion for summary judgment. The Judge had the following evidence before him to rule on State Farm's motion.

On August 21, 1991, plaintiff, a student at the University of Chicago, was riding his bicycle to his summer job as a waiter on Long Beach Island when he was knocked over by a slow-moving vehicle as it pulled out of a private roadway onto the main boulevard. The driver, who appeared to be in his early twenties, stopped momentarily to inquire if plaintiff was "all right." When plaintiff responded "yeah," he drove off. Plaintiff did not obtain the driver's name or any license or insurance information. The only description plaintiff could give was that the car was an American make and either blue or gray in color.

When plaintiff arrived at work, he could not wait on tables because of bruises on his shoulder, arm and knee, so one of the restaurant's regular customers drove him home. The next day, plaintiff's left side still hurt him, and he went to a local medical center for treatment. He was examined by a health care provider who told him not to worry about his injuries and to "keep ice on [them]."

Plaintiff claims he tried to report the accident by telephone the following Saturday but was told he would have to come down to the police station during the regular work week if he wanted to file a report. He asserts he did not do so because of transportation problems. Two weeks later, "the stiffness in [his] left knee [had] changed to pain and it got to the point where [he] recognized this was a problem." By then, the summer was over, and plaintiff had returned to his permanent residence in Nutley. On September 10, 1991, plaintiff consulted with an orthopedist, William Von Roth, M.D. An MRI was performed on September 19, 1991, after which Dr. Von Roth advised plaintiff that he would probably need surgery if conservative therapies did not work. *fn1

On September 15, 1991, twenty-five days after the accident, plaintiff filed a police report. Plaintiff's mother notified State Farm of the UM claim approximately one month later, on October 18, 1991, after her medical insurer had declined to cover plaintiff's medical bills. *fn2

At depositions, plaintiff testified that he did not file a police report sooner because he initially did not think his injuries were serious in light of the favorable prognosis he received on August 22, 1991, the day after the accident. He also testified that two weeks after the accident he twice returned to the scene (one time with a friend and another time with his mother) to try to locate the unidentified vehicle, but was unsuccessful.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, State Farm submitted a certification consisting of five brief paragraphs from Thomas Cooke, a claims specialist. In the certification, Mr. Cooke acknowledged the policy and recited the date of the accident and the date notice was given to the insurer. The last paragraph of the certification concludes:

I make this Certification at the request of counsel in support of a Motion for Summary Judgment based upon the insured's failure to comply with the terms of the policy relating to the requirement of reporting an accident to the police to receive uninsured motorist coverage.

A section of the policy entitled "Reporting Claim-Insured's Duty" states that "[t]he insured must give [State Farm] ... written notice of the accident or loss as soon as reasonably possible." Under another section dealing with UM coverage, the policy requires the insured "to report a `hit-and-run' accident to the police or to the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles within 48 hours and to [State Farm] within 30 days."

At the summary judgment motion on July 11, 1997, the Law Division Judge determined that plaintiff had "severely prejudiced ... defendant's rights" by failing to satisfy the notice requirements of the policy. The Judge observed that plaintiff had known he had suffered at least some injuries within 48 hours of the accident and, as a result, he should have immediately filed a written report with the police. The Judge concluded that the issue of whether plaintiff had acted reasonably was not relevant, and rejected plaintiff's demand for a trial. The Judge took judicial notice of the fact that Long Beach Island consists largely of summer communities populated by vacationers ...

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