On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 346 N.J. Super. 219 (2002).
This appeal considers whether a tortfeasor's intentional act may constitute an "accident" within the meaning of New Jersey's uninsured motorist statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1.
In March 1997, plaintiff, an undercover police agent for the City of Jersey City (City), and his partner sat parked in an unmarked police van on a side street watching for stolen cars that were frequently stripped at the dead end of the street. Shortly after midnight, plaintiff observed two vehicles traveling toward the dead end. When the vehicles failed to return, plaintiff drove the van to a location approximately halfway between the dead end and plaintiff's earlier vantage point. After parking, plaintiff exited the van. He then displayed his badge and approached the two vehicles on foot. One of the vehicles, a Jeep, began to drive toward plaintiff at a high rate of speed. Plaintiff testified at trial that when he realized that the Jeep was not going to stop, he jumped to the left, while the driver of the Jeep swerved in the opposite direction. The police report by plaintiff's partner, however, stated that the driver of the Jeep deliberately steered for plaintiff. It is undisputed that the Jeep hit plaintiff, breaking his ankle in three places. The driver fled and was not apprehended.
Although the Jeep was insured, its insurer declined coverage because it had been stolen. Plaintiff had uninsured motorist coverage under his personal policy with New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company (NJM) in the amount of $35,000, and was also entitled to $15,000 in uninsured motorist coverage from the City. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to recover from the City, NJM, the owners of the stolen vehicle and the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (UCJF) Board. Plaintiff's claims against the City and NJM asserted that because he was struck by a stolen vehicle operated by an unknown person he was entitled to uninsured motorist coverage. NJM responded by filing a declaratory judgment complaint seeking a determination that it was not required to provide coverage under plaintiff's personal automobile insurance policy.
The trial court consolidated those actions and conducted a bench trial. Prior to the trial, the City elected not to contest the availability of its uninsured motorist coverage. The court also dis missed plaintiff's claims against the vehicle's owners and the UCJF. The court then addressed NJM's denial of uninsured motorist coverage under plaintiff's personal policy. That policy stated, in part, that NJM would pay compensatory damages that an insured was entitled to recover because of bodily injury "caused by an accident." Regarding itself bound by this Court's dictum in Lindstrom v. Hanover Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 242 (1994), the trial court found that the intentional conduct of the uninsured tortfeasor caused plaintiff's injury and therefore no accident occurred. Because plaintiff's NJM policy provided uninsured motorist coverage only in the event of an accident, the trial court entered judgment for NJM.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision. 346 N.J. Super. 219 (2002). The panel held that claims for which uninsured motorist coverage apply are limited to those arising from accidental injury or damage. The panel also relied on Lindstrom to rule that the term "accident" must be viewed from the perspective of the tortfeasor, not the insured, and therefore does not include intentional conduct.
HELD: New Jersey's uninsured motorist statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1, extends coverage to injuries caused by the intentional acts of a tortfeasor; therefore, when plaintiff was struck by the stolen Jeep an "accident" occurred within the meaning of his uninsured motorist policy.
1. The uninsured motorist statute serves two purposes. It is designed to provide maximum remedial protection to the innocent victims of financially irresponsible motorists and to reduce the drain on the financially troubled UCJF. The uninsured motorist statute, passed in 1968, mandated that insurers offering automobile liability insurance also offer uninsured motorist protection. (Pp. 6-7).
2. Under the current statutory scheme, uninsured motorist coverage is governed by N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1, which requires motor vehicle liability policies to provide coverage up to certain minimums for damages "sustained by the insured, caused by accident and arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of such uninsured or hit and run motor vehicle...." Courts of this State have disagreed about the meaning of the requirement that the harm to the injured insured be "caused by accident." (Pp. 7-8).
3. In Lindstrom, this Court found that PIP coverage differs from both auto-liability and uninsured motorist coverage because the latter do not apply to injuries caused by an act that is an accident from the victim's perspective but that is intended by the actor. The Court in Lindstrom also overruled an earlier Law Division decision to the extent it held that a determination of whether an incident involving an uninsured motorist constitutes an "accident" must be arrived at from the perspective of the injured insured. However, because the Court finds that the objectives of the uninsured motorist statute are served by including the intentional conduct of a tortfeasor within the ambit of uninsured motorist coverage, it sets aside the contradictory dictum of Lindstrom. (Pp. 8-10).
4. In meeting its objective of giving maximum remedial protection to the innocent victims of financially irresponsible motorists, the uninsured motorist statute provides recourse to insured drivers for incidents caused by the wrongful or tortious acts of uninsured motorists. It concerns itself not with indemnifying tortfeasors who have caused injury, but instead with ensuring that injured insureds are made whole. Extending uninsured mo torist coverage irrespective of whether the insured's injury was caused by an intentional act maximizes the scope of the protection available under the statute, thereby giving effect to its legislative intent. (Pp. 10-12).
5. Uninsured motorist coverage was implemented also to provide relief to the UCJF. The UCJF statute expressly forecloses insureds possessing uninsured motorist coverage from recovering against the UCJF. Claimants may recover from the UCJF for injuries resulting from intentional acts. The legislative history and purpose of the uninsured motorist statute favor an interpretation that extends the same protections under uninsured motorist insurance as are available under the UCJF. Persons carrying statutorily-required uninsured motorist coverage should be treated at least as well as those who lack such coverage and who consequently must resort to the UCJF for compensation. (Pp. 12 to 14).
6. This holding is supported further by general principles of insurance law. To the extent that the term "accident" in the context of uninsured motorist coverage is ambiguous, construing it to include intentional acts committed against an innocent insured satisfies the reasonable expectations of members of the public who purchase policies. Here, nothing in the language of plaintiff's uninsured motorist policy suggests to the policy purchaser that coverage for a "bodily injury sustained by an insured and caused by an accident" is contingent on the state of mind of a third party. Further, nothing suggests that plaintiff materially contributed to the infliction of his injury. (Pp. 14 to 16).
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for an entry of judgment for plaintiff in accordance with this opinion.
JUSTICE VERNIERO, dissenting, disagrees with the majority's analogy to the UCJF and he would apply the commonly-understood meaning of the term "accident" to determine uninsured motorist coverage. Justice Verniero agrees with both the dictum expressed in Lindstrom and the Appellate Division's judgment in this matter.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA, and JUDGE PRESSLER, temporarily assigned, join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI's opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO has filed a separate dissenting opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zazzali, J.
In this appeal we must decide whether a tortfeasor's intentional act may constitute an "accident" within the meaning of New Jersey's uninsured motorist statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1. The courts below relied on this Court's dictum in Lindstrom v. Hanover Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 242 (1994), to hold that N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.1 does not extend coverage to an insured injured by a third party's intentional conduct. We conclude, however, consistent with the Legislature's intent in enacting the uninsured motorist statute, as well as the reasonable ...