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Lee v. General Accident Insurance Co.

March 02, 2001

JIM H. LEE,
PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
V.
GENERAL ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, L-1161-99.

Before Judges Baime, Wallace, Jr., and Lintner.

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted February 7, 2001

Plaintiff was injured when a motorcycle he was operating became involved in an accident with an automobile. After instituting suit against the other driver, plaintiff sought underinsured motorist benefits under a policy issued to April Jones by defendant General Accident Insurance Company. Plaintiff claimed that he qualified for such coverage because he was a "family member," which was defined by the policy as a person related to the insured by "blood, marriage or adoption." Although plaintiff and Lee had engaged in a marriage ceremony and had lived together as husband and wife, their marriage was void because they had not obtained a marriage license. The Law Division concluded that plaintiff was eligible for coverage by reason of the unlicensed marriage ceremony, and ordered defendant to participate in arbitration. Defendant appeals. We reverse.

I.

The salient facts are not in dispute. On February 22, 1995, Jones applied to defendant for automobile insurance. In the application, Jones listed her marital status as "single." Defendant issued a policy effective from February 27, 1995 to August 27, 1995*fn1. The policy included underinsured motorist coverage.

On August 13, 1995, plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident while driving his motorcycle. Plaintiff was transported to a nearby hospital. Jones, who had been following plaintiff in her automobile, identified herself as plaintiff's wife to the police who appeared at the scene of the accident. The hospital admission sheet indicated that plaintiff was not married.

Three years later, plaintiff served a demand for underinsured motorist coverage. Upon obtaining a certification from the New Jersey Bureau of Vital Statistics verifying that plaintiff and Jones were not married during the policy period, defendant withdrew from arbitration. Plaintiff brought this action to compel defendant to participate in arbitration proceedings. The Law Division conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine plaintiff's marital status.

Jones testified that she and plaintiff began dating in 1988 and became cohabitants one year later. The two purchased a house together in 1993. The deed listed the grantees as "James H. Lee, Sr. and April Dawn Lee, his wife." However, Jones could not produce identification indicating her last name was Lee. The deed was amended to list as the grantees "James H. Lee, Sr. and April D. Jones, n/k/a April Dawn Lee, his wife."

In June 1993, plaintiff and Jones applied for a marriage license. Pursuant to the statutory requirements in force at the time, the two underwent blood tests. However, they were refused a marriage license because the blood tests were dated thirty-two days before the date of application, contrary to the statutory time limit. They nevertheless participated in a marriage ceremony on July 18, 1993. When the minister requested the marriage license, he was told that there was a problem with the "paperwork" and that they would provide him with the necessary documents when they received them. Based upon that representation, the minister issued a marriage certificate.*fn2

In finding that plaintiff was related to Jones by marriage, the judge emphasized that the couple lived together as husband and wife and participated in a marriage ceremony. While recognizing that the marriage was void because of the couple's failure to obtain a marriage license, the judge construed the policy language liberally and determined that plaintiff was Jones' spouse at the time of the accident.

II.

New Jersey courts have consistently recognized that insurance policies are contracts of adhesion and are subject to special rules of interpretation. Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of New Jersey, 121 N.J. 530, 537 (1990); Meier v. New Jersey Life Ins. Co., 101 N.J. 597, 611 (1986); Kievit v. Loyal Protective Life Ins. Co., 34 N.J. 475, 482 (1961). Policies should be construed liberally in the insured's favor to the end that coverage is afforded to the fullest extent that any fair interpretation will allow. Kievit v. Loyal Protective Life Ins. Co., 34 N.J. at 482. In construing an insurance ...


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