On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, L-2541-99.
Before Judges Kestin, Ciancia and Alley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alley, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
On April 5, 1999, plaintiff, Ashok A. Mody, filed a complaint against defendants, Geraldine Brooks (Brooks) and Allstate Insurance Company (Allstate), seeking property damages that allegedly resulted from an automobile accident on January 3, 1999. Plaintiff made no claim for personal injuries and evidently suffered none.
This appeal turns on whether, as the motion judge ruled, plaintiff's action is barred by the New Jersey Automobile Reparation Reform Act, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-1 to -35. (No Fault Act or "Act"), in particular N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5, which provides:
Failure to maintain required medical expense coverage; effect on recovery for non-economic loss
a. Any person who, at the time of an automobile accident resulting in injuries to that person, is required but fails to maintain medical expense benefits coverage mandated by section 4 of P.L.1972, c. 70 (C.39:6A-4) or section 4 of P.L.1998, c. 21 (C.39:6A-3.1) shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss sustained as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile.
We conclude that the claim is not barred and reverse.
The incident in suit occurred in the early morning of January 3, 1999, when plaintiff was driving his automobile southbound on Routes 1 and 9 in Newark. Brooks, the owner and operator of another automobile, struck plaintiff's automobile from behind, allegedly resulting in its total loss.
At the time of the accident, Brooks maintained an automobile insurance policy through Allstate. According to plaintiff, Allstate represented to him "that it would pay the claim arising out of the accident involving" Brooks. Allstate then issued a payoff check for plaintiff's loss, but thereafter notified plaintiff that it was denying his claim in light of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5, "because he was ... driving an uninsured motor vehicle ..." and stopped payment on the check.
Plaintiff concedes that, at the time of the accident, his automobile was not insured and that it was not covered by an automobile insurance policy which afforded personal injury protection (PIP) benefits. Plaintiff maintains, however, that the trial court erred in ruling that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) bars him from recovering property damages. He takes the position that the statute bars recovery only for economic and non-economic losses resulting from bodily injury. We agree both because of the plain language of the statute, and in the alternative, to the extent the statute may be seen as ambiguous, because that is an appropriate implementation of the legislative intent and the case law.
As stated, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(a) provides that
Any person who, at the time of an automobile accident resulting in injuries to that person, is required but fails to maintain medical expense benefits coverage mandated by section 4 of P.L.1972, c. 70 (C.39:6A-4) or section 4 of P.L.1998, c. 21 (C.39:6A-3.1) shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss sustained as a result of an accident while operating an uninsured automobile.
To us, the preclusive language of the statute is plain. Only if there is an accident "resulting in injuries to that person," is the uninsured party barred from suit. Plaintiff in this case did not sustain personal or bodily injury. He sustained only property damage, and the statute thus does not preclude him from bringing suit. We note that the term "injuries to that person" or "personal injury" in the statute is of course employed in the automobile accident context. We thus have no occasion to explore more expansive possible usages of that expression that have been urged, though not necessarily adopted, in other fields, such as racial discrimination cases, see ...